Arizona House passes school bonds bill

Arizona Daily Star
Saturday, May 11, 2013

Arizona lawmakers have slashed $1 billion from public education dollars in recent years and gone to court to avoid mandatory increases in school funding. Now they want taxpayers to directly cover the costs of new construction, repairs, equipment and school buses.

The Arizona House of Representatives passed legislation Monday that would allow school boards to increase local property taxes to pay for bonds to cover long-term capital costs. The 31-26 vote on Monday illustrated a division among lawmakers on both sides of the aisle over how to fund Arizona schools hit hard by the recession.

Supporters described the measure as a temporary salve until the state comes up with a permanent plan to restore school funding, while conservative Republicans said it would wound homeowners still recovering from the economic downturn.

"Many families are hurting. This bill says let them eat cake," Republican Rep. John Allen of Scottsdale said.

House Bill 2399 would allow school districts to set bond limits of up to 20 percent of its tax base, up from the current limit of up to 10 percent. The bill was revived recently after months of inaction and came to the floor late Monday with little notice.

Jeremy Calles, chief financial officer of the Kyrene School District in Phoenix, said educators need more money to cover basic repairs, including leaky roofs and broken pipes that emit sewer fumes and distract students.

The bill faces a difficult road to passage because it still needs to move out of the Senate, but lawmakers appear eager to end the legislative session soon. It's also unclear if Republican leaders will support a measure that could potentially increase property taxes by up to $400 million statewide, according to state estimates.

Some GOP lawmakers said the measure would contribute to inequitable education funding because property wealth can vary wildly between each school district.

"This is a bad bill," Republican Rep. Justin Olson of Mesa said.

More than 100 school districts had outstanding bonds totaling $3.9 billion in 2012. Roughly a third of the districts cannot raise more money because they have reached the bond limit established under state law. Meanwhile, declining property values in recent years also limited how much schools could collect from homeowners.

With the economy sinking, state lawmakers passed a $123 million cut to education funding in 2009. A year later, they cut $144 million. In 2011, it was $288 million. The next year, it was a whopping $328 million. In 2013, the Legislature reduced education funding by roughly $280 million.

State education leaders have endorsed the proposed bond limit increase, while business and anti-tax groups oppose it. Kevin McCarthy, president of the Arizona Tax Research Association, said the bill would trigger legal challenges if it is signed into law.