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Mon, March 25

State wants sales tax increase to boost education

Rep. Michelle Udall

Rep. Michelle Udall

PHOENIX – A House panel voted Monday to ask voters to sharply increase what they pay in sales taxes to fund public education.

HCR 2024 would put a measure on the 2020 ballot to boost the current 0.6-cent sales tax earmarked for schools to a full penny. That would bring in an extra $450 million to $500 million a year, with 75 percent earmarked for K-12 education, 20 percent to keep tuition affordable at public universities and the balance for community colleges.

The 8-4 vote by the Education Committee came after a parade of witnesses, including parents and school officials, told lawmakers that the additional dollars are needed to ensure that Arizona children have a quality education. Several also cited the cuts in public education made in the past decade as lawmakers sought to balance the state budget during the Great Depression.

While there was no real dispute among legislators that more dollars are needed, several said they could not support this measure.

Rep. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, said he wants to be sure the dollars go to the classroom and the teachers and not to administration.

“Why these people who really want to teach would lock themselves in a room with a bunch of raging hormone kids is beyond my comprehension,’’ he told colleagues.

But Fillmore said he fears voters will be fooled into believing that if they approve the tax hike then the education funding problem is actually solved.

“I believe that what will happen then is we’ll just kick the can down the road,’’ he said.

On the other side of the aisle, Rep. Isela Blanc, D-Tempe, said the amount of new dollars is not just too little but comes too late.

She pointed out that the first dollars would not reach the classrooms until the 2021-2022 school year. Blanc said young children who are not getting the education they need now because of the lack of proper funding just can’t wait that long.

And Blanc objected to the fact that sales taxes are regressive, with those near the bottom of the income scale paying a larger percentage of what they make than those who are more affluent.

Rep. Aaron Lieberman, D-Phoenix, agreed with the basic objections.

“We clearly do not have enough money that we need to provide a world-class education for the children and families who are the absolute future of Arizona,’’ he said. And Lieberman said the bill is not perfect.

But he said it is better than the current funding situation because it would make “some progress’’ to providing schools the necessary resources.

More to the point, Lieberman said he sees this as just part of the solution, saying the state needs to go after “the billions of dollars in loopholes and special tax deals that are shot through our tax code right now.’’

The legislation by Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, closely tracks a similar measure being ushered through the Senate by Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake.

A decade ago the state was providing $4.59 billion for public education. For the current year the estimate is close to $5.63 billion.

On a per-student basis, that’s an increase of about $600.

When inflation is taken into account, basic state aid for maintenance and operation of schools is actually about $100 less per student.

Udall acknowledged that aid to schools makes up about half of the total state budget.

“But at the end of the day there are more needs in education,’’ she said. And Udall said there is a constitutional requirement to provide a “free and appropriate’’ public education for all children, including those who have special needs.

That still leaves the question of how to fund those needs.

“We have to look at a broad-based approach to make sure that everyone is paying their fair share, that everyone feels some of the pain, and everyone has the opportunity to know that they are supporting and fighting for our kids,’’ said Rep. Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen.

Relying solely on a one-cent sales tax, he said, does not meet that test. But it’s what’s on the table.

“What I’m not enthusiastically supportive of is the fact that our kids are in classrooms right now and they don’t have the resources that they need,’’ he said. “And I am not willing to let another five, 10, 15 or 20 years go down the line without our kids getting the resources that they need."

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