Arizona appellate court rules state legislature failed to meet voter mandate that school funding be adjusted for inflation
According to a report in The Republic, in a unanimous decision, the Arizona Court of Appeals has held that the state legislature must fully pay for the base education budget, something that has not happened for three years. The three-judge panel effectively told the Legislature it cannot pick and choose which parts of a voter-approved school-funding initiative it wants to pay for.
Proposition 301, a ballot measure that voters approved in 2000, called for annual inflation adjustments to the base education funding formula, which covers school operating costs and other education spending, such as transportation and extra assistance to state charter schools. However, in the past three budget years, the legislature paid only for minor elements in the education plan, omitting funding increases to account for inflation. Lawmakers argued that the “either/or” language in the ballot measure gave them permission to pick and choose which elements to fund, especially in years when the state was trying to erase deep budget deficits.
A Maricopa County Superior Court ruling in 2011 agreed with the state lawmakers’ assertions that the language of the ballot measure gave them room to maneuver, but the Appeals Court used the legislature’s own words, as well as the history of Prop. 301, to reverse the lower court decision. The appellate court noted that the legislature assumed full inflation funding when it calculated the cost of the ballot measure before it went to the voters. And the legislature’s description of the ballot measure said both the base education level and other education components must be adjusted for inflation.
The education groups that sued the state say they are not looking for a restoration of the estimated $250 million lost over the last three years. But they want the legislature to honor what voters approved, as well as any new education spending that Governor Jan Brewer or lawmakers might be contemplating.
Attorneys Tim Hogan and Don Peters, who represented a coalition of education groups, school districts, and education supporters in the lawsuit, said voters also have prevailed in this case. That is because Prop. 301, which passed with 53.5% of the vote, is safeguarded by the Voter Protection Act. That means the legislature cannot scale back the measure.
Chris Thomas, general counsel for the Arizona School Boards Association, said he hopes lawmakers save taxpayer dollars and forgo an appeal. It would be better for lawmakers to focus on funding the pending achievement mandates, he said.
Source: The Republic, 1/15/13, By Mary Jo Pitzl
[Editor's Note: In its decision in Cave Creek Unified School District v. Ducey, the Court of Appeals ruled that the state legislature had reneged on its duty under Prop. 301 to adjust the base level of education funding for inflation each budget year. The court declined the appellants' request that the panel find "that the legislature’s decision to eliminate the inflation adjustment requirement for the base level component of the revenue control limit constitutes an amendment of a voter-approved statute and thus conclude that H.B. 2008 violates the VPA [Voter Protection Act].”
The panel acknowledged that the legislature is facing significant challenges, due to economic circumstances, in preparing the state’s budget, but cautioned that the state “constitution does not permit the legislature to change the meaning of voter-approved statutes by shifting funds to meet other budgeting priorities.”
Attorney Don Peters is a member of the Council of School Attorneys.
In September 2010, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Arizona Daily Star, which reported that the Arizona Supreme Court had rejected a lawsuit filed by five school districts, the Arizona School Boards Association, the Arizona Education Association, and several individuals alleging that the then-current state budget should have included a full inflation adjustment in funding for K-12 public schools. The court refused, without comment, to hear the special action lawsuit filed directly with the state supreme court. As a result, the plaintiffs in the case had to start over by suing in trial court. Approximately $55 million in additional funding was at stake. Legislators who supported the then-current budget claim the state could not afford any further spending.]