Prop. 203: Dollars for early education

Arizona Capitol Times
Friday, September 22, 2006
Jim Small

A five-year effort to establish a statewide program for early childhood education and health care is on the ballot this fall in the form of Proposition 203, which would raise the tobacco tax by 80 cents per pack of cigarettes to generate upwards of $150 million a year for the programs.

But a conservative tax watchdog group says the proposition has many flaws, including potentially violating a constitutional amendment approved by voters two years ago that prohibits ballot measures from affecting the state's General Fund.

The driving force behind the proposition, known as First Things First for Arizona's Children, is Nadine Mathis Basha and her husband, grocery store magnate Eddie Basha. The focus of the initiative, she says, is to increase Arizona's national standing in overall child well-being - a category that includes immunization rates, infant mortality rates and other health issues - through providing healthcare and educational opportunities to children from birth until age five.

The proposition consists of three main parts: funding early education and health programs at the local and regional level; dedicating resources to detect learning disabilities and serious health problems in children; and annual audits by the Auditor General to ensure 90 percent of the money is spent on programs, not administration.

Ms. Basha says that, in recent years, "hard science" has shown that children's brains are 90-percent developed by age three, emphasizing the need to get children off on the right foot educationally.

"All of that lays down the brain architecture for later learning," she said.

The decision was made to pursue the issue via initiative, Ms. Basha said, because of a fear that, without a dedicated funding source, the programs could hurt the K-12 education system.

"One of the things we did not want to do was compete with education funding," she said of the never-happened legislative effort. "There needs to be a funding stream for 0-5 [years old]."

The importance of not impacting the state education system, Ms. Basha says, is that there is a continuum of education, and early success leads to more success later on in the child's educational career. For instance, she said, the number of vocabulary words a student has in kindergarten is an indicator of how well the student will read in 3rd grade, which itself is an indicator of high school graduation.

Language calls for 9-member task force

If it passes, the proposition would create a nine-member task force that would be appointed by the governor and approved by the Senate. Once formed, the board will divide the state into regions - probably by county, though the board would have discretion - each of which will have its own administration to determine what programs are needed in that particular area of the state.

The ballot language provides very few specifics regarding how many regions will be created or what health- or education programs the tax will fund, but Ms. Basha says that was done so deliberately, to increase flexibility at the local level. Participation in programs is also voluntary.

"We really like the aspects of local control," she said. "What we hope to do is provide parental choice and give parents a better choice."

McCarthy: 'Local control' a myth

Kevin McCarthy, president of the non-profit Arizona Tax Research Association, said the idea of "local control" the backers of the proposition espouse is unlike any other, since the board and the regional administrations are not accountable to the people who live in the regions.

"If there were something that could be the exact opposite [of local control]," he said, "this would be it. Local control is electing people to run things, not appointing them."

Steve Roman, a spokesman for the Yes on 203 campaign, says process for selecting board members both to the statewide board and the regional boards includes guidelines to make sure all areas of the state and a variety of professional backgrounds are included.

"We believe very strongly that that's a prime example of how something is localized," he said.

An 80-cent per-pack tobacco tax increase would hike the taxes from $1.18 to $1.98 on each pack of cigarettes, or 68 percent, giving Arizona the sixth-highest tobacco tax rate in the nation.

According to the ballot question language, the proposition would also raise taxes on individual cigars by five cents; small cigar cases by 18 cents; and chewing tobacco by nine cents per ounce.

Existing tobacco taxes supplement the state's general fund, the Department of Corrections, health care, health education and health research.

Mr. McCarthy says Proposition 203 is bad public policy and is poorly crafted.

"I think this is a textbook example of the dangers involved in the initiative process," he said, "where an extraordinarily sloppy piece of legislation gets on the ballot because people have enough money to circulate petitions."

Sen. Ron Gould, R-3, said he is concerned the costs for the programs funded by the proposition will eventually be the burden of all Arizona taxpayers as revenues from tobacco sales have historically declined.