Monday, April 18, 2016

The AZ Legislature Has the Court System By the Short Hairs

Posted By on Mon, Apr 18, 2016 at 2:30 PM

Here's the primary reason—not the only reason, but the primary one—why I'm planning to hold my nose and vote yes on Prop 123, then hate myself in the morning. It's either pass the proposition or not see any more money for our schools any time in the foreseeable future.

Some people who plan to vote against Prop 123 believe that, since we won the battle for school funding in the courts, Prop 123 will mean losing what we've gained. If we vote down Prop 123, they believe, the court decision will come back into play and we'll get, not just 70 percent of what the state owes the schools but the whole 100 percent, and we'll get it without all those triggers Ducey and his henchmen built into the proposition which could let the legislature pull the money out from under the schools as easily as Lucy used to pull the football away from Charlie Brown. Under that scenario, defeating Prop 123 is a win-win.

It's a lovely thought. If it were true, even if it took a few years for the courts to force the legislature to pay up, I'd be at the front of the line voting against Prop 123. The problem is, it just ain't so. The courts can tell the legislature to pay up, but all the anti-public-school legislators have to do is shrug, fold their arms across their chests and say "Make Me!" That's it. Game over. The courts can't make the state pay up.

On Saturday, Tim Steller had an instructive column about the balance of power between the legislative and judicial branches in Arizona. The article is about Ducey's desire to pack the Supreme Court by adding two seats. Naturally, he'd be the one who would appoint the new justices meaning the court would be in his pocket. Supreme Court justices past and present say they don't want the two extra members and the court doesn't need them, but the current justices are reluctantly going along with the idea. Why? Because it would come with a much-needed ten million dollars for the court system, including a 3 percent raise. The reason the courts need the money so badly is that the legislature swept up $6 million to help balance the budget. To get it back, they have to bow to the governor's will. Of the two supposedly independent branches of government, the one holding the purse strings is a whole lot more independent than the other.

There are two likely scenarios if Prop 123 fails and the whole school funding thing goes back to the courts. One is if Ducey succeeds in packing the courts. The state will appeal the decision, and it's not likely the schools will come out the winner in a court decision made up of Ducey appointees working together with other conservative-leaning justices. The other is if Ducey's court packing plan doesn't pan out. In that case, the courts may persist in saying the state owes money to the schools, but what will they do then? Likely, nothing. It would be damn difficult for the courts to force the state to pay up no matter how hard they tried, and really, how hard are they going to try knowing how easily an angry legislative majority can cut their funding stream?

The basic Prop 123 choice facing school supporters is, are you willing to go for the short term, $350 million a year funding gain and worry about the future in the future, or are you willing to live with the current funding level hoping that somehow, some way, a better deal will come along somewhere down the road? It's a lousy choice—lose now or possibly/probably lose later.

This retired teacher knows what it was like to suffer under dwindling school funding when I taught in Oregon, watching class sizes grow while supplies and support services shrank. I know how dispiriting it was, how it hurt the quality of education we offered to our students. And yet in Oregon we had about $3,000 more per student than here in Arizona. It's hard to imagine how dispiriting it must be to work for Arizona's ridiculously low salary while trying to teach too many students with too few resources. I say, take the $350 million now and see if we can throw out some of these anti-public-school elected officials in November, then a few more two years later and replace them with people who put our children first, not last.

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