Tuesday, June 7, 2016

What Motivates Ducey to Spend Money He Doesn't Want to Spend? Fear of the Voter.

Posted By on Tue, Jun 7, 2016 at 3:40 PM

I've been writing a lot lately about how, since Prop 123 passed, Ducey sidesteps the issue of education funding every time he's asked what his "next step" will be. He wants the next step to be for people to stop pestering him so he can get back to cutting education funding in next year's budget—or if he has no other choice, continue with the same bottom-of-the-barrel funding which has been the norm for too many years—but we're not likely to hear him say that out loud.

This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. As I've written in a number of posts, I never expected Ducey to spend a penny more on education after Prop 123 without a fight, nor did other pro-education folks like me who held their noses and voted for what we considered to be the least bad option. There's only one way to get more money for education out of the majority of elected Republicans who are dead set on dismantling our system of public education, and that's to keep up the pressure.

Remember, Ducey and his cronies didn't create Prop 123 because they liked the idea of increasing education funding. It was only when they realized public opinion was turning against them that they concocted a plan that would add some money to education without touching the budget. It'll take far more public pressure to make them actually commit to more money for education this time, because it will have to come from the state coffers, not the state land trust. Success is far from guaranteed, but if there's no fight, I can guarantee Ducey's "next step" will be to step away from the funding issue as quickly as he can.

Ducey didn't suggest Prop 123 because he wanted to put more money into education. He and his buddies were perfectly happy to continue ignoring the court's ruling that they have to replace the money they illegally stole from the schools, and to continue cutting the education budget year after year. But in February, 2015, they had the fear of God The Voters put into them courtesy of a Morrison Institute poll. The poll found that voters wanted more money for education, even if it meant more taxes.
Nearly two-thirds of Arizonans, including more than 50 percent of Republicans, would be willing to pay an additional $200 in state taxes annually to better fund K-12 education.
Those are frightening polling numbers if you're Ducey and the Republican leadership. If voters want more money for schools, and they say they're willing to pay more taxes to fund it, that threatens the Republican agenda of slashing the budget and cutting taxes for their buddies. They feared, if they continuing to stonewall the court order, they might find themselves with a voter rebellion on their hands. People might start listening to Democrats and moderate Republicans. Anti-public education conservative legislators could find their jobs threatened at the ballot box. They had to do something.

The most obvious next step would have been to make a good-faith effort to put more education money in the state budget even if it wasn't as much as the courts demanded, but they were having none of that. The budget Ducey signed in March, 2015, cut K-12 spending overall, including a $30 million hit to JTED. Republicans continued to worry about the results of that Morrison Institute poll which said that public opinion had turned against them on education funding, but at the same time, they weren't about to commit more budget money to education. They were in a bind.

In June, 2015, Ducey proposed a way to make an end run around the problem: Take money from the state land trust fund and use it to add $300 million a year for education. He said he wanted to put the issue on the ballot in November, 2016.

It was a brilliant maneuver. If people voted to take money from the state land trust, Ducey could say he solved the funding problem without digging into the budget surplus or the rainy day fund—and without raising taxes—and he could go back to his budget cutting, tax cutting ways. If it was voted down, he could say voters really weren't committed to increasing education funding, so come budget time in 2017, he could cut the education budget once again and shift the blame to the voters.

The education establishment didn't give its support to Ducey's plan when he first presented it in June. They were still hoping that talks to settle the lawsuit would bear fruit. But they didn't dismiss it either. They left their options open.

In August, 2015, attempts to settle the lawsuit over education funding reached an impasse. Once again, the court announced that the state owed the schools $330 million a year and demanded it pay up. Once again, the legislature appealed the decision.

And once again, Republicans worried that public opinion would turn against them if they didn't do something. Even those two stalwart opponents of education funding, Senate President Andy Biggs and House Speaker David Gowan, knew they had to get in front of the issue. Minutes after the impasse was announced, they put out their own funding proposal, which involved stealing money from other parts of the budget and combining it with money taken from the land trust funds. That meant there were two funding plans on the table from Republicans who never saw a cut in education funding they didn't like.

A month later, the Democrats, sensing an opportunity, announced their own funding proposal which was based on increasing the state's education budget instead of digging deeper into the state land trust like the Republican plans.

At the end of October, 2015, Ducey called a special session of the legislature, and it passed what became Prop 123, to be put in front of the voters on May 17, 2016. This time the education establishment, seeing nothing but endless delays in the court funding battles, backed Ducey's plan.

When the next legislative session rolled around in January, 2016, Ducey and the Republican legislative leaders were no friendlier toward education than they had been before. True, they reversed the previous session's $30 million cut to JTED, but not because they wanted to. The public pressure was intense enough, it forced their hands. When they finally released their budget proposal, it included a $21 million cut to education, which would have passed if a few of the more education-friendly Republicans hadn't refused to vote for the deal. The final budget was basically revenue neutral when it came to education, but only because the leadership lost its bid to cut funding.

On May 17, Prop 123 passed, though whether it will actually be put into action still remains to be seen.

So here we are, at Ducey's "next step." Every indication is that he has no intention of increasing the education budget. In 2015 and 2016, he and his legislative buddies did everything they could to decrease spending, and there's no reason to believe they'll do anything different next year. Ducey wants to pat himself on the back for Prop 123 and move beyond the distractions of the education funding debate to the conservative agenda he really cares about.

There's a lesson Arizona's pro-education forces can draw from what they've seen in 2015 and 2016. Ducey and the legislature only created Prop 123, reversed the $30 million JTED cut and kept the 2016 education budget intact rather than cutting it because of public pressure. If people want to see funding increases in the future, which will have to come from the state coffers since there's no way to go to the land trust well again, the pressure has to increase. Reporters need to insist that Ducey and every Republican legislator go on record about whether they plan to ask for increased education funding in the next budget. Voters need to do the same. And Democrats, elected and otherwise, as well as the education establishment, need to make as much noise as possible to keep the funding issue alive. Getting more money from the legislature is possible, but it will only come about with intense, unrelenting pressure. Fear of the voter is one of the only ways to focus, and change, a politician's mind.

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