Arizona GOP leader Kelli Ward pushes school sales tax hike
Kelli Ward, in her new role as head of the Arizona Republican Party, is seeking to rally GOP lawmakers to allow a public vote on a plan to boost the state sales tax for education by four-tenths of a cent.
At a press conference Wednesday on the Capitol lawn, the Lake Havasu City resident argued that supporting taxes for higher education is a Republican thing.
But her audience was less the media in attendance than elected members of her own party who so far have failed to provide the necessary votes for the plan by Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake, to put the issue on the 2020 ballot. Even Ward conceded she is getting pushback from Republicans.
She argued, though, that a vote for Allen’s plan is not, technically speaking, a vote to increase taxes.
“This ballot referral gives us the opportunity for voters, for everyone, to tell us where they stand on funding education in our great state,” Ward said.
“Do they feel that we have enough?” she said. “Or do they feel that we need more? We’re going to hear from the voters.’’
But neither Allen’s SCR 1001 nor HCR 2024, a mirror measure in the House being sponsored by Rep. Michelle Udall, R-Mesa, have gotten a roll-call vote because there are not enough Republicans who support the idea of a tax hike, even one referred to voters.
Sen. Vince Leach, R-Tucson, pointed out the plan amounts to a 66 percent increase in the current 0.6-cent sales tax that was first approved by voters in 2000.
“I don’t support that,” he said.
Leach pointed out that lawmakers already are looking at other new sources of revenue, including exercising the right of states, granted by the U.S. Supreme Court, to levy sales taxes on online purchases. There also is a debate on which kind of digital products and services should be taxed.
“We’ve got to be truthful with the taxpayers and say we’ve got to look at this (revenue picture) in totality,” Leach said. And that, he said, requires a holistic decision of “how much of a load can you put on the taxpayer.’’
Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, questioned the need for higher taxes.
“We fund education,” she said. “We’ve done a lot in that area. We plan on doing more.’’
And even Gov. Doug Ducey won’t support the plan, even if it just refers the question to voters.
“The governor has been clear,” said press aide Patrick Ptak. “He does not support raising taxes.’’
What makes Ward’s push for GOP support crucial is that Democrats are not on board -- and not only because they question whether the extra $472 million a year the tax hike would raise is enough.
Joe Thomas, president of the Arizona Education Association, said K-12 education needs at least an additional $1 billion a year.
He also pointed out that even Allen’s plan does not deliver all the new dollars to public schools. Her measure divides up the cash, with about $350 million going to K-12, close to $95 million to support keeping tuition affordable at state universities and the balance for community colleges.
And there’s something else: Who pays.
In general, those at the bottom of the income scale pay a higher percentage of what they earn in sales taxes than those who make much more. Education interests and Democrats are more interested in a plan that relies at least in part on increasing income taxes on the most wealthy.
A similar plan to raise $1 billion through income taxes was proposed for the 2018 ballot but was knocked off the ballot when the Arizona Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the wording of the required 100-word description was so flawed that it likely confused those who signed the petitions. Backers say they hope to have a recrafted measure ready to take to voters later this year.
Allen sniffed at the idea of using income taxes to make up for funding shortfalls in education.
“It is better to tax on what you spend than to tax on what you earn,” she said.
The senator also brushed aside questions of why voters should increase their own sales taxes when the Republican-controlled Legislature cut corporate income tax rates by 30 percent, a move that decreased revenues by hundreds of millions of dollars. She defended the move.
“We depend very much on the small businesses, our medium-sized businesses,” Allen said.
“They buy things, they pay sales tax,” she said. “And they also provide our jobs.’’
Aside from trying to pressure recalcitrant GOP lawmakers, Ward had another goal for the press conference: try to change the image of the Arizona Republican Party and the belief that education has suffered at the hands of GOP governors and lawmakers. She said she wanted to showcase “great Republican policies ... and great Republican legislators.”
“And that helps us to get elected,” Ward conceded.
What she also wants to do is try to attract voters back to the GOP fold.
“People that are young, suburban, women have drifted to the socialist side, the Democrat side,” Ward said. “Proposal such as this bring them back to the table for the great ideas of the Republican Party.’’
The record, however, shows that the cutback in funding to public education occurred under Republican governors.
It started with Gov. Jan Brewer who said she was forced to make cuts to deal with the $3 billion deficit she was left with after Democrat Janet Napolitano quit to take a job in the Obama administration. But those cuts continued after Gov. Doug Ducey took office in 2015.
In fact, state funding per student went from $4,996 in the 2008-2009 school year to $3,854 four years later, even before inflation is taken into account.
It has only been more recently -- and after a week-long teacher strike -- that the governor and GOP lawmakers voted for a 20 percent pay hike for teachers spread out over four years. They also promised to eventually restore the dollars stripped from another fund that pays for everything from textbooks to school buses.
The current per-student funding figure according to legislative budget analysts is $5,211.
Allen’s plan is drawing support from some education groups and school officials, particularly from rural areas, who said that any amount of new money is helpful.
Sean Rickert, superintendent of the Pima Unified School District said he has spent the last seven years “working to wring the blood out of the turnip using what limited resources we get.”
“It’s getting harder and harder to find teachers,” he said. But Rickert said the financial problems go beyond staff.
“It takes a lot of stuff to run a school district,” like furnishings, equipment and buses. “And, unfortunately, all that stuff wears out.’’
And Colleen Smith, president of Coconino Community College, rejected the idea that the amount of cash from the new tax that would be left to schools like hers is not enough to make a difference.
“What the rural colleges could do from this type of funding is amazing,” she said. Smith said the community colleges are the ones who are preparing students for the careers the state needs, from getting the training needed to fix computer-controlled cars to learning what it takes to be a nurse.