In some respects, it’s easier to make a case against Proposition 204 than it is to support it. This measure on the Nov. 6 ballot would keep the state sales tax at 6.6 percent with most of the funds from a permanent 1-cent surcharge going to Arizona’s public schools. If it fails, the sales tax drops back to 5.6 percent. And who wouldn’t like to pay lower taxes? Plus, many credible organizations and individuals — from the Arizona Chamber of Commerce to the Goldwater Institute to Craig Barrett, former CEO of Intel — oppose it for a variety of legitimate reasons.
But in this case, the easy answer is not the right one.
Prop 204 is Arizona voters’ chance to take control and decide for themselves that education funding is a top priority — rather than leaving that decision to partisan politics at the state level. It’s our chance to put our dollars into our schools at a time when they need to do more to prepare kids for jobs in science, technology, engineering and math. It will send a message to companies and highly-skilled workers considering a move to our state that we, the taxpayers of Arizona, are willing to invest in education.
And it won’t have us paying any more in state sales tax than we already are.
Next year, a temporary 1-cent hike in the state sales tax, approved by Arizona voters in 2010, will expire. This tax was supported by Gov. Jan Brewer and others to help public schools when the state budget was facing massive cuts. The money it generated went into the general fund so the state wouldn’t have to make even deeper cuts to public schools. In the East Valley, our school districts were already cutting hundreds of millions of dollars. Brewer promised voters then that the increase was only temporary, and she does not support its continuation through Prop 204. While we understand Brewer’s position, we can also see where proponents of this tax measure are coming from. Prop 204 is a grassroots effort by Arizona parents and various organizations who are fed up with a state Legislature that has failed in their view to adequately fund public schools. Prop 204 would make the 1-cent surcharge on the sales tax permanent and require the state to spend most of the revenue it generates on education.
Per-pupil funding — estimated by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee to be about $8,784 in 2013 — is a combination of local, federal and state dollars. And since 2008, the state’s share has dropped 20 percent, according to Chuck Essigs of the Arizona Association of School Business Officials, who also points out that decline is closer to 27 percent when adjusted for inflation. Arizona ranks 21st nationally in federal funding for education (although most of that money is for special needs students) and 32nd for local funding. But we rank 48th in state funding.
In recent years, our elected state leaders have been more interested in pursuing legislation to make schools more accountable for learning and spending, and to give parents more choices for their children’s education. We applaud this, but the fact is that despite these reforms Arizona’s students still lag behind their peers on national and international indicators. And if school choice was the sole answer to improving education, Arizona would be out-performing just about everyone else; few states offer the plethora of schooling options – tax credits for private schools, education savings accounts, open enrollment, charter schools – that we do.
Money does matter.
Don’t be fooled by the rhetoric opponents are using to shoot down this important ballot measure. In reality, it is not a tax increase. As Howard Fischer of Capitol Media Services has reported, the Prop 204 tax wouldn’t take effect until June 1 – the day after the temporary levy expires. Approval of this measure simply keeps the sales tax where it has been since 2010. And it’s important to note that in that time, this tax has not stopped our state’s economy from improving.
A new report released last week by Marcus & Millichap National Retail Group pointed to numerous examples of how our economy in the Valley is rebounding from the recession. For instance, most major employment sectors have seen growth this year, with Phoenix gaining 20,400 jobs, and job growth in our construction industry — 3,740 new jobs — outperformed most of the nation in the past six months, second only to Houston.
And there is more good news in the group’s 2012 annual retail forecast:
• Employment in the Phoenix metro area will expand by 41,000 positions in 2012, an increase of 2.4 percent.
• Construction development will reach a three-year high at the end of this year as 750,000 feet of retail space is completed.
• “Solid demand and fewer store closures will support a 90-basis point reduction in vacancy this year to 11 percent, representing the lowest level since early 2009.”
There are things we don’t like about Prop 204. Some of the money is earmarked for social programs and transportation. We would prefer that the entire tax go to public schools. It’s also permanent, and the governor and other opponents are correct when they say that’s not good policy. But in this case, the benefits of Prop 204 outweigh those considerations. We’ve adjusted to the 6.6 percent tax and our economy is coming back. Now is the time to invest in education and our future.
Prop 204 faces an uphill battle. The number of politicians, businesses and interest groups jumping on the anti-204 bandwagon grows every day. But it can win if those most vested in it — the parents of the 1,060,000 kids in Arizona’s public schools and the state’s 60,000 public school teachers — get out and vote and urge their families and friends to do the same. Parents and teachers: Now is the time to band together and ensure our schools are adequately funded.
It will be up to you — not our Arizona Legislature — to get that job done right.