Education sales tax

In March, Ann-Eve Pedersen, president of the Arizona Education Network, signed the forms launching an initiative drive to make permanent the additional one-cent hike on the state sales tax set to expire the middle of next year. (Capitol Media Services file photo)

Howard Fischer, Capitol Media Services

An initiative drive launched Friday seeks to make permanent the temporary one-cent sales tax hike set to expire next year.

Ann-Eve Pedersen, president of the Arizona Education Parent Network, said the measure “will provide voters ... a once-in-a-generation chance to improve education for school children statewide.” If approved, about 60 percent of the $1 billion a year that would be raised initially would be earmarked for K-12 education.

The proposal also has funding for higher education, including scholarships.

But the package also sets aside $100 million a year for transportation projects, including roads and mass transit. Doug Martin, president of the Associated General Contractors of Arizona, said that will help create jobs.

Another $100 million would go out in grants to provide child care and help reduce hunger, homelessness and family violence. And there is $25 million to once again start enrolling children in the Kids Care program which provides free health care to children of the working poor.

All that, however, presumes backers can get the necessary 172,809 signatures on petitions by July 5 to qualify for the November ballot. More to the point, it also presumes that voters, promised by Gov. Jan Brewer when they approved a one-cent hike in 2010 that it would self-destruct in three years, are willing to go along.

Pedersen said she believes they will.

“Voters at that time were perfectly willing to make it permanent at that time,” she said. And Pedersen said recent polling shows voters are willing to let the levy remain in place as long as it funds their top priorities: education and the economy.

About $500 million would go to public schools without strings. But Pedersen said this is not just throwing money at the problem of education quality, saying the needs for more funding are real.

She pointed out, for example, that lawmakers approved a measure last year that eventually will require third-graders to prove they can read before being promoted. But the budget proposed by state legislators contains no additional funding.

But some of the funds are conditional.

“A piece of it includes performance measures such as test scores, third-grade reading proficiencies, graduation rates, drop-out rates,” Pedersen said, as well as how Arizona compares with other states on things like the National Assessment of Education Progress. “And there’ll also be a piece of that, that gauges student engagement and parental satisfaction.”

The transportation part of the project would mean new business for the contractors who are members of Martin’s organization. He said that funding is justified, saying the construction industry has lost more than 100,000 jobs since the economy went bust.

But Martin said this is about more than creating contracts for his companies, saying a good transportation system is “vital to the economy.” And he said once the state’s economy improves, that will create all sorts of jobs for Arizona graduates.

The sales tax funding would supplement what already is collected in gasoline taxes and vehicle registration fees.

But more fuel-efficient vehicles and cars lasting longer has meant those proceeds have not kept pace with growth. And the financial situation has been complicated by the governor and lawmakers taking money from the Highway User Revenue Fund for other purposes.

Martin said using sales tax proceeds for transportation also solves another problem.

The Arizona Constitution requires HURF proceeds to be used only for roads, bridges and similar projects. The sales tax funds could be used for mass transit, including inter-city rail, if the state transportation board desires.

And to keep the funds from disappearing, a provision in the initiative would preclude lawmakers from taking any more HURF dollars for other priorities.

Gubernatorial press aide Matthew Benson said his boss is not ready to take a position on the measure.

“The governor needs an opportunity to review that language,” Benson said.

But the initiative drew fire from Senate Majority Leader Andy Biggs. And the Gilbert Republican derided the plan to divide up the cash among so many beneficiaries.

“They’re trying to include a little bit to buy everybody off,” he said. “A little bit for here, a little bit for there and everywhere.”

Biggs also said the initiative drive also shows he was correct in 2010 when, in opposing the tax hike, he predicted that it would become permanent despite being sold as only a temporary fix to deal with the economic slowdown.

He also questioned the need for additional cash.

“We probably need to look pretty closely at what our constitutional duties are and restrain our government to the constitutional duties,” Biggs said.

That does include education.

But Biggs pointed out the state also is spending more than $1 billion a year on health care for the poor. He said what should be simply a safety net for the most needy has evolved into “socialized medicine.”

Biggs said paring down programs like this would free up more money for education without the need for additional tax revenues.

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