Let's be clear from the start: The extra 1-cent sales tax proposed in Proposition 204 is not meant to solve the state's budget problem.
It is meant to raise an extra $750 million a year for education in a state whose reputation for underfunding it is hurting Arizona's ability to attract and retain jobs.
If the resulting sales tax is too high, then reform the tax code. Arizona economists of all stripes have long called for a broader tax base with lower rates, and if it takes a measure like Prop. 204 to finally force head-in-the-sand lawmakers to see the light, then so be it.
If there isn't enough money left over in the budget for other priorities, then reform the budget, starting with prison spending. Ludicrously, the legislative majority initially proposed 5,000 new beds even as the state's prison population was declining. It took a lawsuit by church groups to reduce that number to 1,000, and even that seems unjustified until the state tackles sentencing reform. If Texas and California could do it, resulting in tens of millions of dollars in budget savings with no increase in the violent crime rate, then it's time Arizona did so, too.
A DIRECT HIT ON UNRESPONSIVE LAWMAKERS
Let's also be clear that a vote for Prop. 204 is not just a warning shot across the bow of an unresponsive legislative majority. It is a direct hit, which is why there is such a fierce counterattack. A dedicated tax of this magnitude sends a clear message about voters' priorities, just as the temporary sales tax for education did in 2010.
But the majority didn't get that message -- most of them had opposed putting the tax on the ballot in the first place, much less voting for it. When the state's budget crunch eased and analysts projected a $450 million surplus, the majority refused to consider any additional school spending, vowing to put the entire amount into the rainy day fund. It was only at the insistence of Gov. Brewer and legislative Democrats that enough votes were mustered for $40 million to fund one of the majority's own mandates: that all students learn how to read by the third grade.
It's that kind of intransigence on school funding that leads us to swallow hard and endorse Prop. 204. Nobody likes higher taxes, least of all when the economy has still not entirely recovered from the deep recession of 2008-09. And we are sensitive to concerns that Arizona's sales tax, if Prop. 204 passes, will remain among the highest in the country.
But on the other end, Arizona's per-pupil funding will remain among the lowest in the nation, and that's even if Prop. 204 passes. If it fails, nearly $1 billion in dedicated funding will be withdrawn from the school funding formula, a fiscal cliff that so far the legislative majority has refused to acknowledge, much less address.
TIME FOR A CHANGE
Some opponents contend there are no guarantees that the extra money will result in better education. Yet those same opponents have placed unfunded mandates on schools for higher AIMS scores, expanding the common core curriculum and implementing a comprehensive teacher assessment system. Local school boards are well aware that if they fail to meet those mandates, their budgets will be penalized and their schools face disruptive reorganization by the state. That might not be a guarantee of accountability, but it's about as close as a government bureaucracy can come.
Other critics worry that the tax is permanent and dedicated and thus unresponsive to changing fiscal realities and budget priorities down the road. We worry about that, too, but the alternative -- trusting the legislative majority to fund K-12 education at levels that make Arizona a leader, not a loser, in the race to the top -- frankly is a nonstarter, given the dysfunctional hyperpartisanship that we have seen year after year at the Legislature. After years of seeing the Legislature balance the budget on the backs of schoolchildren in a state that is already at the bottom of the school funding ladder, it is time to lock in a higher spending level once and for all.
But what about simply voting out those who won't commit to educational excellence and replacing them with those who will? We agree that is the ideal course in a representative democracy, and if a top two open primary system embodied in Prop. 121 wins on Nov. 6, we would hope a new lineup of pro-education lawmakers could generate the kind of voter trust that would allow Prop. 204 to be modified or even repealed in future elections.
But that is then and this is now: We are heading toward a fiscal cliff in K-12 funding in this state and the drivers -- the legislative majority as well as the governor -- are not willing to swerve, much less find a different route. The whole nation has been watching Arizona in recent years for all the wrong reasons, and it's time voters sent a signal that someone other than the extremists are paying attention to what really matters in Arizona. Prop. 204 isn't perfect, but it is much, much better than anything coming out of the state capitol these days regarding the future of this state's single, most important asset: its children. We urge a yes vote for Prop. 204.
Serving this week on the Daily Sun's Editorial Advisory Board were Publisher Don Rowley, Editor Randy Wilson and citizen members Mark Lamberson, David McCain, Joyce R. Browning, Scott Kuhr, Becky Daggett and John Lauc.
Our View: A vote for Prop. 204 will send a message that Arizona isn't satisfied with remaining at the bottom of the national education ladder.