Arizona’s End Run Around the Education Spending Lobby

Jon Gabriel:

More money for schools with no new taxes: What’s not to like? A lot, apparently. Mr. Ducey’s plan disrupted the usual coalition of teachers unions and public school districts, leading some in the K-12 establishment—those administrators and union officials who have a way of soaking up dollars while doing little for students—to take the unfamiliar position of objecting to new education funding.

The superintendent of Mesa Public Schools, Arizona’s largest district, launched an email and robocall campaign to turn parents against the proposal. He insisted he was fighting for “the children,” but he was less upfront about disclosing that his lobbying effort was funded with school-district money that could have been put into the classroom instead.

On the other side of the aisle, several of Gov. Ducey’s fellow Republicans preferred to keep the state lands in reserve as a safety net for the future. The green-eyeshade crowd was suspicious of any new spending, even without added taxes. State Treasurer Jeff DeWit, the most prominent official to criticize the plan, lobbied GOP legislators against his own governor. A political newcomer, Mr. DeWit worried that the plan would shortchange the state land trust by several billion dollars—40 years from now. The trust is one of the few fiefdoms that Mr. DeWit controls, and he wanted to keep that money in his back pocket, collecting interest. His re-election campaign three Novembers from now might be tougher if his balance sheet shows a short-term dip.

The disruptive nature of Gov. Ducey’s proposal was unmistakable. With the legislature weighing whether to place his plan on the next ballot, the two sides in the lawsuit were forced to the mediation table after judges’ pleas for the parties to settle had failed. After tense meetings at the governor’s office between legislative and education leaders, a deal was struck that would give schools $3.5 billion over 10 years—$2 billion from the land trust and $625 million reallocated from the state’s general fund. The legislature quickly passed the bargain, and Gov. Ducey signed it on Oct. 30.