Calling it unnecessary and bad policy, state Treasurer Doug Ducey formally launched a campaign Wednesday to defeat a proposed permanent one-cent hike in the state sales tax.
Ducey said it was one thing for voters to approve the temporary hike in 2010, even though he conceded he actually opposed that ballot measure. He said that was designed to deal with a historic deficit and become a financial "bridge'' to help protect funding for education and other priorities until the state's fiscal situation improved.
But Ducey said now that's happened. And he sees no reason to build in a requirement to spend an extra $1 billion a year.
The formation of the committee comes as Secretary of State Ken Bennett formally certified Wednesday there are enough valid signatures to put Proposition 204 on the November ballot. It also comes one day after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Bennett was wrong in declaring that initiative organizers had not complied with state election laws.
Ducey won't say how much he hopes to raise in the bid to defeat Proposition 204, saying only that he believes donors will provide "what we need.''
But he faces what promises to be a well-funded campaign in favor of the measure.
Campaign finance reports through May 31 show proponents had collected nearly $500,000 and still had nearly $114,000 cash on hand at that point, even after paying for petition circulators and consulting fees. And Capitol Media Services has been able to identify at least another $322,000 in large donations -- at least $10,000 apiece -- since that date.
Ann-Eve Pedersen, who is leading the pro-204 campaign, declined to disclose the group's budget other than to say "we have the resources to run a very effective 'yes' campaign.''
Financing may be crucial since the fate of Proposition 204 could be decided on how voters see the issue.
The initiative would make permanent that one-cent surcharge on the state sales tax that voters approved in 2010. If the measure fails, the rate will drop back to 5.6 percent.
Supporters are touting the results of a Morrison Institute survey which found that 74 percent of those questioned say the Legislature provides public schools with less funding than is needed. There also are various studies which show Arizona near the bottom of all states in per-pupil funding.
Ducey, however, said all that misses the point.
"We don't need the money,'' he said, unlike 2010 when the state faced a $3 billion deficit. Gov. Jan Brewer led the charge for the temporary hike, saying that would help protect funding for education and public safety; the balance came from a combination of spending cuts and borrowing.
As of Wednesday, Ducey said Arizona has $1.27 billion in its operating account, which is $500 million more than the same time a year earlier. And that doesn't count the $450 million lawmakers put into a "rainy day fund.''
Pedersen said even if that is the case, that has not translated into restoring some of the cuts that have been made to education funding.
Even in the most recent budget, lawmakers are still not providing the funding required for all school repairs. And they refused to restore the cash schools are supposed to get for "soft capital'' items like books and computers.
About 80 percent of the money raised each year -- about $800 million initially -- would be earmarked for K-12 education. And Pedersen said even if that would boost funding above 2010 levels, that has to be considered in the proper context.
"The expectations for our students and our schools are much, much higher than they were in 2010,'' she said. For example, she said there are some new requirements kicking in, ranging from the new evaluation system of teachers and principals to a mandate that students must read at third grade level to be promoted to the fourth grade.
"The Legislature has enacted higher standards for our students but not provided the resources so that students can succeed,'' she said.
Ducey countered that Proposition 204 amounts to throwing money at the problem. And he said even if Arizona is at or near the bottom on per-student funding, "this money still does nothing to improve education,'' saying there is "zero accountability.''
Most of the cash that would flow to K-12 education comes without strings. But some of the dollars are linked to schools meeting certain performance goals.
Ducey also complained that the initiative would not only lock in the use of these dollars forever -- or at least until altered by a future public vote -- but also would preclude lawmakers from reducing other funding sources. He said lawmakers need flexibility to deal with situations as they arise.
And he argued that if people are unhappy with how lawmakers divide up the available resources, they are free to replace them.
Pedersen said that's not an answer.
"We've tried that,'' she said, saying it takes time. "We cannot sacrifice a generation of kids while we're hoping for better legislators.''
She also said Ducey's interest in spearheading the anti-204 campaign is linked not to the issues but instead to his interest in running for governor in 2014 in what could be a crowded Republican field. Ducey denied that is his motivation while sidestepping the question of his political ambitions.
"I'm focused on the treasurer's office right now,'' he said.
The treasurer is not alone in his opposition to the permanent extension. Many Republicans, led by Brewer, are arguing against approval.