No on Proposition 123 … And More

April 11, 2016

Arizona faces a Constitutional amendment—Arizona Education Finance Amendment aka Proposition 123—which addresses school funding next month. And the entire nation finds itself in the midst of what might be called a democratic revolution, as “the people” have decided not to go along/get along, at least in the Republican Party. I have some thoughts.

In the early part of the last century, many states—especially those in the West—adopted direct democracy overlays, on top of the federal and state representative democracy models. In Arizona, our Constitution included initiative, referendum, and recall processes. The initiative process allowed the people to make laws by obtaining lots of petition signatures and placing a proposed law on the ballot. Referenda provide the people—again with petition signatures—the right to set aside laws. Finally, recall lets the people remove elected officials.

What we take for granted today in Arizona and many other states was a novel concept 100 years ago. So unusual, in fact, that President William Howard Taft vetoed Arizona’s initial statehood bid because of these Populist tools. The veto prompted the Arizona territorial legislature to satisfy the president but, soon after Arizona became a state, the state legislature amended the Constitution, adding the objectionable provisions. Take that, Taft! (For an excellent piece about these issues, read Arizona, Progressivism’s Love Child by Jason Labau.)

We can debate aplenty whether direct democracy makes sense. I’m no fan, for as awful as my state’s legislature conducts itself, we pay these people to make laws. When we have them, but also have the collective “us” making laws alongside the legislature, we provide lots of opportunities for mischief. And we need only look to our left, to California, to fully appreciate just how badly initiative and referendum can mess up a good thing. (From Ballotpedia, read California Proposition 13 (1978), which provides the details about the initiative which totally messed up California’s tax base for school funding, and screwed the state up in any other ways.)

So what about Proposition 123. Well, in 2000 Arizona voters adopted Proposition 301. It provided for a sales tax increase to fund schools, as well as automatic inflation adjustments to school budgets. Good policy, and it did come up through the legislature.

Unfortunately, the Arizona legislature adopts budgets, and our “schools don’t need no more money, they need discipline, guns, and prayer” legislature ignored the part of the proposition about inflation adjustments. “The people be damned,” said their representatives.

After a five-year battle in the courts, with the pro-spending side winning at every turn, the case settled. Terms? Well, the schools will get their money through increased distributions from the Arizona Land Trust, the trust which holds state land to support the schools. (There’s nuance, for sure, but that’s the proposition at its core.)

I’m voting no! If I understand the deal correctly, the legislature took school money, used it for unintended purposes, and will give the schools the money the courts have directed it to spend by taking it from the schools’ savings account. I appreciate the need to fund the schools, and no one should ever forget the fact that while we debate principles, kids are missing out on the basic right to learn.  Still, this deal sucks!

Proposition 123 is a big deal and, as noted, arguments in favor of its passage are not frivolous. So, if you’re an Arizona voter, inform yourself. And if you want to inform yourself in 150 seconds, and see and listen to yours truly, palsied chin and all, watch my friend Tamar Rala Kreiswirth’s masterpiece.

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