High court rules state lawmakers wrong to adjust public school aid for inflation - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Community Focus

High court rules state lawmakers wrong to adjust public school aid for inflation

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Posted: Sunday, September 29, 2013 10:34 am | Updated: 8:04 pm, Sun Dec 8, 2013.

Reaffirming the right of voters to make their own laws, the Arizona Supreme Court on Thursday ruled state lawmakers acted illegally in refusing to adjust state aid to public schools for inflation.

The justices rejected arguments by attorneys for the state that lawmakers are free to ignore the provisions of a 2000 voter-approved measure mandating the annual increases. They said the will of the voters, coupled with a constitutional provision prohibiting legislative tinkering with anything approved at the ballot, pretty much makes such adjustments off limits.

Thursday’s decision most immediately ensures that schools will be in line for at least another $80 million this coming budget year, with similar increases every year forever unless and until voters decide otherwise.

But the implications are far deeper: the decision is a sound slap at lawmakers who have contended they have the right to ignore voter mandates.

Justice John Pelander, writing for the unanimous court, said voters and legislators share the power to make laws under the Arizona Constitution. But he said that the 1998 Voter Protection Act gives voters the upper hand, limiting legislative authority to alter or repeal what they have adopted.

And he said that what lawmakers did clearly violated the Voter Protection Act.

At issue is a 2000 ballot which measure boosted the state’s 5 percent sales tax by six-tenths of a cent through June 30, 2021. The measure, approved on a margin of 53.5 percent to 46.5 percent, also requires the Legislature to forever increase funding for schools by 2 percent or the change in the gross domestic price deflator, whichever is less.

Lawmakers did that until 2010, when, facing a budget deficit, they reinterpreted what the law requires. The result is that, since then, schools have lost anywhere from $189 million to $240 million, depending on whose figures are used.

Don Peters, representing several school districts, sued.

Legislators did add $82 million in inflation funding for the new fiscal year that began July 1 after the state Court of Appeals sided with challengers. But lawmakers took the case to the high court, arguing the mandate is legally unenforceable.

Assistant Attorney General Kathleen Sweeney argued there are limits on the rights of voters.

She said the 2000 measure sets the formula for increasing state aid and then tells the Legislature to find the money somewhere. Sweeney argued that infringes on the constitutional right of lawmakers to decide funding priorities.

But Pelander said Sweeney and the lawmakers she represented have it backwards.

“Our state constitution, unlike the federal constitution, does not grant power, but instead limits the exercise and scope of legislative authority,” he wrote.

On one hand, Pelander said, lawmakers could not cite any state or federal constitutional provision which restricts the ability of voters to enact their own laws. And legislators are not challenging what voters approved in 2000, acknowledging that they could have enacted both the tax hike and the inflation mandate themselves.

“It follows that the people also could constitutionally enact that statute,” Pelander said.

Pelander acknowledged that, generally speaking, one Legislature cannot bind future Legislatures. That principle frees lawmakers next year to repeal what was adopted by lawmakers two years ago.

But he pointed out that lawmakers chose not to enact the legislation themselves and instead punted, putting the question on the ballot.

“Having chosen to refer the measure to the people, who then passed it, the Legislature is subject to the restrictions of the Voter Protection Act which fundamentally altered the balance of power between the electorate and the Legislature,” Pelander wrote.

“It’s certainly a good day for the kids of our state and our voters,’’ said Tim Ogle, executive director of the Arizona School Boards Association, one of the groups who challenged the prior refusal of lawmakers to provide the funds.

But the victory is prospective only: nothing in Thursday’s ruling requires lawmakers to make up should have been added to the budgets of state schools in the time lawmakers suspended inflation funding.

Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said he is still studying the ruling to see what implications it has beyond the immediate question of state aid to schools.

House Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, said lawmakers probably were going to fund the inflation formula for future years, with or without a Supreme Court order. But Tobin, like Biggs, said he wants more time to analyze the court’s underlying reasons and the longer term implications.

Ogle acknowledged the high court ruling does tie the hands of lawmakers, limiting their ability to make decisions on spending priorities to first ensure funding for what voters have mandated.. But he said that’s irrelevant.

“They have a responsibility to the citizens that elected them,” Ogle said, citizens who have a constitutional right to adopt their own laws. “So they’ll just have to figure that part out.”

The court has not always sided with ballot proponents. The justices ruled last year that lawmakers can sidestep a requirement in a 2004 ballot measure that the state must provide care for everyone below the federal poverty level.

But that conclusion was based on language in the initiative which said the coverage would be funded by a tobacco tax, the state’s share of a nationwide settlement with tobacco companies, and other “available sources” of cash. And the courts said it is up to legislators to determine whether there are funds “available.’’

The programs cut from the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System are set to be restored in January as part of the state’s decision to take advantage of — and get funds through — the federal Affordable Care Act. Under the plan pushed by Gov. Jan Brewer, those dollars will be coupled with what amounts to a tax on hospitals.

But that conclusion was based on language in the initiative which said the coverage would be funded by a tobacco tax, the state’s share of a nationwide settlement with tobacco companies, and other “available sources” of cash. And the courts said it is up to legislators to determine whether there are funds “available.’’

The programs cut from the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System are set to be restored in January as part of the state’s decision to take advantage of — and get funds through — the federal Affordable Care Act. Under the plan pushed by Gov. Jan Brewer, those dollars will be coupled with what amounts to a tax on hospitals.

But that program itself could wind up before the Supreme Court, with foes of Medicaid expansion arguing that lawmakers illegally enacted a tax hike without the requisite two-thirds vote required by the Arizona Constitution. Attorneys for the governor contend the levy is not a tax and needed only a simple majority of both the House and Senate.

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