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10:58 AM Fri, Oct. 19th

State business leaders ask for a 1.5-cent sales tax increase

PHOENIX – A plan by business leaders to ask voters for a 1.5-cent sales tax hike for education on the 2020 ballot could set the stage for a possibly expensive battle with Gov. Doug Ducey and his Koch brothers allies – assuming Ducey is still in office at that point.

The specifics of the plan, first proposed earlier this year, include $660 million to extend the 0.6-cent sales tax that voters first approved in 2000 as Proposition 301 to fund education. That levy will self-destruct in 2021 unless specifically reauthorized.

Ducey has already said he supports making that tax permanent.

But this plan also includes $340 million for a 10-percent increase in teacher pay. That compares with the 1.06-percent pay-hike lawmakers approved for this year with a promise of an identical amount next year.

There’s also $300 million to fund the formula, ignored for years by the governor and lawmakers, which is supposed to pay for new school construction and repairs.

Another $240 million would restore state funding for full-day kindergarten, dollars eliminated during the recession.

And there were would be $190 million to help restore some of the cuts made in funding for universities.

Ducey, for his part, remains opposed to anything more than the simple extension of the 0.6-cent tax.

“He doesn’t support raising taxes,’’ press aide Daniel Scarpinato said Wednesday. Instead, the governor has told state agencies chief to find ways to save money in their budgets with the idea of redirecting the dollars to K-12 education.

Ducey has a track record fighting against higher taxes for education. As state treasurer he led the successful 2012 fight against an initiative pushed by parents and educators to make permanent a temporary one-cent sales tax increase which voters had approved two years earlier.

Potentially more significant, he has shown an ability to tap financiers Charles and David Koch brothers to fund such efforts. More than half the nearly $1.8 million Ducey spent to kill the ballot measure came from Americans for Responsible Leadership, a group that legal filings from other states revealed got its money from a Koch-financed organization.

Two years later, Ducey got elected with their help of Koch-based organizations which put more than $750,000 into ads targeting Democrat candidate Fred DuVal and spent another $650,000 promoting Ducey. Since that time Ducey has regularly attended retreats sponsored by Koch groups promoting their vision of free enteprise.

Phil Francis, the former CEO of PetSmart and one of the leaders of the coalition, said this isn’t about picking a fight with the governor, whom he said he supports. But he said financial data show show that much more money is needed than what the state is now spending.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee showed per-student state aid in the 2007-2008 school year was $4,959. Adjusted for inflation, Francis said, the figure dropped to $3,782 in the 2014-1015 school year. It’s now at $4,157.

He said simply coming up with new ways to divide the money is not the answer.

“We don’t need another vision for education,’’ Francis said. “We need to act.’’

Reginald Ballantyne, the former president of the state Board of Education, is particularly focused on children getting more than 2.5 hours a day in kindergarten, saying it’s “no longer about cookies, coloring and naps.’’

“By the end of kindergarten, students (should) understand the organization and basic features of print, blend sound to read written words with fluency and accuracy, and use phonics to write words and express thoughts and ideas in writing,’’ he said. And Ballantyne said he believes the success of students in higher grades is directly linked to those early years.

Ducey and the business leaders do agree on one thing: Any question about taxes for education should not go to voters next year.