When it comes to education finance in Arizona, it takes an advanced degree in accounting to keep track of the confusing array of applicable budget and tax laws.
But after last week's veto by Gov. Jan Brewer of a bill allowing CCC to hold an election to reset its primary property tax rate, one thing is consistently clear: Education in this state is under the thumb of politically driven formulas and a legislative majority at the capital that has no intention of letting local citizens set their own education priorities.
If Arizona as a state were a leader in public education, then local control on taxes and budgets might be a non-issue. But when national studies consistently show Arizona ranks near the bottom on multiple funding and achievement measures, local self-determination on education should rise to the top of the political agenda.
It is not only a financial issue -- Arizona's children can't compete in a global economy with a substandard education -- but an ethical one: Does this generation of Arizona adults, who have benefited so mightily from robust public investment in schools, have the right to disinvest in the education of today's young people for the sake of short-term concerns like prisons, border control or highway expansion?
NO CONCERN OF STATE
The example this time -- there have been many others in recent years -- is the refusal by Brewer to allow the Coconino Community College District to go to voters for a new tax rate. The first one, set in 1991 when the district was formed, was ridiculously short-sighted -- it was calculated to serve 1,000 students, not 10,000, and it counted on continued state aid. Subsequent limitations on tax rate hikes have meant CCC can't simply raise the rate to account for growth -- the extra costs have to be paid mainly out of tuition, especially since state grants have dropped from 40 percent to 10 percent of the district's revenues.
The governor, in her veto message, said that if she allowed CCC to reset its tax rate, others would ask to do the same. We point out first that local voters, not CCC, set the tax. And further, what concern is it of the state if local residents choose to tax themselves at a higher rate for local education, especially when the governor herself just signed a budget that continues to drastically underfund community colleges?
The hypocrisy is magnified by Brewer's professed concern for students being charged ever-higher tuition that drives them into debt. When local residents are ready to help control that debt by raising their own taxes to keep CCC tuition -- the highest in the state -- from rising any further, vetoing enabling legislation just to score political points seems almost heartless.
BAIT AND SWITCH
As Brewer knows, there is no guarantee that a tax hike would even pass. She saw that with last year's ballot initiative to extend the sale tax hike for K-12 schools. She opposed even putting it on the ballot, contending she had an alternative fiscal remedy for Arizona's chronically underfunded schools. But instead of the extra $750 million a year that Prop. 204 would have raised for schools, Brewer came up with an extra $100 million. We've called it bait and switch; others are a lot less charitable.
What is even more galling about the veto is that her own Republican allies stuck out their political necks and voted for the CCC enabling bill. The three legislators representing Flagstaff are among the state capital's most conservative, but they came around in the end for a bill that, if the vote passes, will help train more nurses, firefighters and a host of other local workforce jobs that Republicans stand for. They might also have been persuaded that any tax hike would still keep community college tax bills in Coconino County as the lowest in the state.
Is there another way for CCC to raise the money the district says it needs, besides having voters reset the primary tax rate? Yes, and it will do so in November when it seeks a seven-year budget override for $4.5 million. The difference, however, is that the measure is temporary, which will cost more money to pay for each election.
TIME TO CHOOSE SIDES
In the end, it will be up to the district's campaign committee to make the case for the tax hike, no small feat in an economy that still has not fully recovered from the recession. Brewer's veto might not make a difference. But it's another reason why local education advocates fail to get much traction when they attempt to recruit school board members or rally resources behind new education initiatives. With an attitude like Brewer's, local control will be only one veto away and the thumbs of state ideologues will only be pressing down harder on local public education. Here's hoping the next state election campaign makes it clear who is on which side.