Almost 51 percent of Arizona voters in the 2016 election favored Gov. Doug Ducey’s solution to the long and painful education funding crisis.
Tuesday we found out that the solution was illegal.
Federal judge Neil Wake ruled that the plan to take $2.2 billion from the state land trust for K-12 education required Arizona to obtain permission from Congress, which was not done. His ruling prevents the state from renewing the funding stream when it expires in 2025.
Ducey’s plan to resolve a bitter legal fight between the Legislature and state school boards required changing the Arizona Constitution. Voters provided the authority to make that change by approving Proposition 123 in May 2016.
The plan called for tapping into the $6.1 billion land trust, pulling about $200 million a year for 10 years. The trust gets its money from the sale of state land. Interest earned by the trust goes to support the cost of education in Arizona. Proposition 123 authorized the state to pull both principal and interest from the account.
Ducey touted the initiative as the best way to resolve a lawsuit brought by an association of school boards against the Legislature. The legal action was filed after lawmakers diverted funds generated by a voter-approved sales tax and designated specifically for education. Legislators took the action in 2009 after state revenues plummeted during the Great Recession.
Proposition 123 was promoted as a way to restore some of that education funding, without raising taxes — a key campaign promise made by the governor.
The problem, Judge Wake said, is that the state is giving money to schools that it doesn’t have the authority to distribute. Congress approved the Enabling Act when Arizona became a state in 1912, specifically requiring that the revenue generated from the sale of land donated by the federal government to the state be placed in a trust. Arizona has the authority to distribute the interest generated by the trust for education, but not the principal.
Judge Wake’s ruling contends that Arizona should have obtained congressional approval for the authority to tap into the state land trust principal.
The only consequence from this ruling will come in 2025, if the state tries to renew provisions of Prop. 123.
By then, Ducey will be out of office and figuring out how to fund education will be a headache for future lawmakers.
Reprinted from Sierra Vista Herald/Review