Slim lead for Arizona education measure; pension change winning big

Doug Ducey

Doug Ducey

UPDATE: PHOENIX (AP) - Elections officials in Arizona's most populous counties say they need another day at least to count ballots that will determine the fate of a proposal to tap the state's land trust fund to boost education funding.

County recorders in the state's five largest counties said Wednesday they have more than 112,000 outstanding early and provisional ballots to process and count. Most said they expect to actually count the ballots Thursday and possibly Friday.

Arizona voters were almost evenly split on Proposition 123. The measure backed by gov. Doug Ducey would pump $3.5 billion into the state's K-12 school system over 10 years using general fund and trust land cash.

The measure held a tiny lead Wednesday with 50.5 percent of the vote. It must exceed 50 percent to pass.

According to numbers posted Wednesday on the Arizona Secretary of State's website, Mohave County voters gave the nod to Proposition 123, 15,005 to 11,808. Mohave County also supported Proposition 124, 16,654 to 9,815.

PHOENIX - Arizona voters were almost evenly split on a proposal to tap the state's land trust fund to boost education funding, but a measure overhauling public safety pensions was winning by a wide margin Tuesday night.

Proposition 123 is a plan to pump $3.5 billion in new money into the state's K-12 school system over 10 years using general fund and trust land cash.

It was leading by a very narrow margin late Tuesday, barely staying above the 50 percent threshold needed to tap the land trust by amending the state Constitution.

Maricopa County and nearly every other county had completed counts of Election Day ballots by 11 p.m. That means final results won't be known until Wednesday at the earliest, and likely later in the week.

Maricopa County alone has an estimated 50,000 early ballots to count that were dropped off before Election Day. Elections Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Bartholomew said it's likely another 100,000 early ballots were dropped off at the polls. Verification of those ballots will begin Wednesday.

Proposition 123 was losing in three of 15 counties - Pima, Coconino and Yavapai.

Meanwhile, Proposition 124 changing the state's pension plan for emergency workers was winning with 70 percent of the early ballots cast, and the head of the state's largest firefighters union called it a landslide victory. The proposal would ratify a major part of an overhaul of the police and firefighter pension system that was enacted by the Arizona Legislature earlier this year.

Proposition 123 is designed to settle a long-running lawsuit over school funding and was backed by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, education organizations and many lawmakers from both parties. Schools sued over the Legislature's failure to follow a voter-approved law and increase school funding each year to adjust for inflation, but the issue remained in the courts before a settlement was reached in October.

The measure would provide about 70 percent of what schools said they were owed and stops a court fight that has already dragged out for more than five years.

Proposition 123 was losing in Coconino and Pima counties, Democratic strongholds that appear to have pushed back against the Ducey-backed plan. The measure also was not faring well in Republican-leaning Yavapai County.

"It certainly shows that there's some very deep-seeded distrust of this governor and this legislative majority based on the cuts they've made to education," Democratic Sen. Steve Farley said from Tucson. "I think it was a huge struggle for people trying to figure out whether they would vote to get a little bit of money in there now and whether they could trust this current government to actually append it on schools."

Farley ultimately voted for the plan, but said voters from both parties found plenty not to like.

"From the Democratic side it wasn't nearly enough to make up for the $1,000 per public school student that has been cut since 2008," he said. "From the Republican side they were very concerned with the future integrity of the land trust. I think there was something for everybody to hate in this initiative."

Ducey was at the Yes on 123 campaign headquarters Tuesday evening. His spokesman said he wouldn't comment until more votes were counted.

"The governor feels positive about where things are," spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said. "The proposition has been leading all night, and we're continuing to watch the votes as they come in. There's still votes to be counted."

Voters like Stephanie Eastman, 68, said the state shouldn't have to use additional money from the trust and as a result voted against the proposition.

"I feel like they're threatening us with it," she said after voting in Phoenix.

The pension plan changes voters must ratify include lower cost-of-living increases for current and future retirees and are designed to help fix the system's finances. The funding level has sunk to just 50 percent of its expected liabilities while employers have seen their contribution rates soar.

The larger overhaul of the pension system establishes a new tier for newly hired officers, limiting maximum pension payments and equalizing employer and employee contribution rates.

"This measure means firefighters and police officers will need to work longer before retirement, contribute more and accept lower cost of living increases down the line, but we agreed to these sacrifices because we understood the seriousness of this emergency," said Bryan Jeffries, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona. "We saw a crisis and we took action to fix it."

Ann Ridenour, 80, said she supported Proposition 124, but wished that new public safety employees could receive the same benefits as their more experienced colleagues.

"It doesn't seem quite fair," she said.

Voters turning out for Arizona's special election were able to cast their ballots without waiting in the long lines that marred March's presidential primary in Maricopa County. The county nearly doubled its number of voting centers from the 60 used in March, county elections department spokeswoman Elizabeth Bartholomew said.