Judge rules that state violated AZ Constitution when it transferred school costs to Pima County
Pima County won a big round in court last week when Maricopa County Judge Christopher Whitten ruled that the Arizona Legislature and Gov. Doug Ducey violated the Arizona Constitution when they pushed some local school costs down to Pima County.
If the decision stands, Pima County taxpayers will be spared the responsibility of paying an additional $15.8 million to Tucson Unified School District.
Whitten said the facts of the case favored Pima County to such a degree that there wasn't even need for a trial; one day after a hearing on Monday, May 23, he granted Pima County's request for summary judgment and ruled that the state essentially came up with a half-baked process and then told an unelected Property Tax Oversight Commission to figure out how much Pima County taxpayers should pay. In his minute entry, Whitten said that the state did not have the authority to delegate its taxing authority in that manner, especially since the oversight commission was given no clear guidance on how to spread the tax burden around.
"The power and responsibility to tax is vested in the Arizona Legislature and may not be delegated by it," Whitten wrote. "While the legislature may delegate the power to fix a tax rate to an administrative body, it may only do so if it prescribes a specific standard to be used by that body. (The new law) fails to prescribe such a standard."
Pima County Supervisor Sharon Bronson, a Democrat who represents District 3, said the court's decision meant—at least in this case—that lawmakers had been blocked from "shifting costs to other jurisdictions."
"It's time for the Legislature to grow up and do the business it's supposed to do," Bronson said.
Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll, a Republican who represents District 4, also cheered the court decision.
"I felt from the beginning that the shift was unconstitutional, arbitrary and capricious," Carroll told the Weekly. "I hope the state does not try to appeal because it would be a great disservice to all those in Southern Arizona who are forced to pay for two school districts, in essence."
Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry noted that Whitten only ruled on one of four arguments that the county brought against the state, so if the state appeals the decision, there are additional arguments to be made.
"If the state appeals, we would continue to assert all four unconstitutional elements of the case," Huckelberry said last week.
The case stems from a complicated element in Arizona's property-tax system that requires the state to cover property taxes if the local jurisdictions reach a certain level. This so-called "property-tax cap" was established more than three decades ago in an effort to keep property taxes under control and avoid a repeat of California's Prop 13, a voter-approved measure that has lead to dramatic inequities in the Golden State's property-tax system.
Last year, Ducey and GOP state lawmakers pushed to balance the budget without raising taxes by shifting some of the cost of backfilling the property tax onto the counties. The cost to Pima County would have been $15.8 million.
The lawsuit was supported by Bronson, Carroll and two other supervisors: Democrats Ramón Valadez and Richard Elías. Supervisor Ally Miller opposed the lawsuit, which is particularly ironic because 90 percent of the 100,000 or so parcels owned by Miller's District 1 constituents were subject to a property-tax hike to fund TUSD operations, even though they don't live in TUSD, according to a county analysis.
It's a similar situation for State Legislative District 11 constituents who are represented by state Reps. Mark Finchem and Vince Leach, as well as state Sen. Steve Smith. All three voted for the law, even though it required 98 percent of the parcels owned by their Pima County constituents pay more in property taxes for TUSD, even though they live outside of TUSD boundaries.
Those constituents and other Pima County taxpayers may have been spared a property-tax hike as a result of the lawsuit. Last week, Huckelberry recommended that the county eliminate this year's proposed property-tax hike because of the court decision. And if the state did not appeal the decision, Huckelberry suggested an even deeper cut to property taxes that were raised last year to cover the costs of the state's cost shift to Pima County.
In a memo to supervisors, Huckelberry said the court's decision showed that "the state has substantially overstepped their bounds regarding the transfer of property-tax liability to local jurisdictions; something that needs to reversed and stopped. Local county property taxpayers should not be burdened by the Legislature's attempt to avoid the appearance of increasing property taxes by transferring the tax liability to local jurisdictions."
Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said attorneys for the administration were still reviewing the judge's decision.
A Real X-File
Ally Miller makes a federal case out of the strange and anonymous online blog linked to her communications staffer
Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller went forward with her plans to file a complaint last week with the FBI, claiming that she and her communications aide Timothy DesJarlias, were victims of a cyber attack by someone who "is trying to interfere and smear an elected official by impersonating a member of my staff. He is also actively attempting to influence an election by posting false documents."
The report stems from the strange case of the Arizona Daily Herald, a bogus online news site that vanished nearly as soon as it launched after its fictitious editor, Jim Falken, was linked to an online identity used by DesJarlais. DesJarlais has denied being involved in the effort, despite the amount of circumstantial evidence that has piled up against him. (The details of the entire bizarre affair we laid out in last week's cover story.)
We are as anxious as anyone to find out what the FBI concludes about all this, but what we find notable about Miller's report that she included both her address and DesJarlais' address on the report and then posted it online. It's an ironic move, given that Miller lost her shit when the Weekly posted her address online as part of a story showing that she had moved road-repair dollars away from major streets and into her own neighborhood.
In that case, Miller called 911, asked the operator if he could have the Weekly's story removed from the internet and claimed she was in fear for her life now that her secret lair was revealed to the public.
Will she call 911 on herself this time?
Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel airs at 8 a.m. Sunday on the CW Tucson, Channel 8 on Cox and Comcast and Channel 58 on Dish, DirecTV and broadcast. You can hear the show on KXCI, 91.3 FM, at 5 p.m. Sundays or watch it online at zonapolitics.com.