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Arizona Reminds Us: Don't Forget Ballot Initiatives!

As the election season heats up along with the weather, it's important to remember the ballot decisions that don't involve delivering stump speeches or begging donors for cash. Ballot initiatives across the country will affect education in the next several months. Some deal directly with education policy issues, but many will have an impact on the amount of revenue available to state lawmakers the next time they consider their school funding levels.

One good example of the latter category is in Arizona, where a November ballot initiative to extend a "temporary" 1-cent increase in the sales tax is headed to court, Mary Jo Pitzl of the Tuscon Citizen reported on June 26. If successful, the initiative would earmark the estimated $1 billion annual increase in state revenue for the state's public schools, along with transportation construction industry projects and children's health programs, and bar legislators from slashing or otherwise fiddling with the revenue streams flowing from that additional revenue.

Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett disqualified the initiative on June 26. Bennett told petition supporters that the initiative's language that was distributed to the public for their signatures did not match the language submitted to his office, and that he was therefore compelled to keep the initiative off the November ballot. (Bennett made headlines recently for requesting more information about President Barack Obama's birth certificate, before deciding that the president was in fact eligible to be on the November ballot.)

The group backing the initiative, the Quality Education and Jobs campaign, will take the issue to court because it believes the petition complies with state law. But had Bennett approved the petition, another group, this one opposed to the extension of the tax increase, would have taken it to court anyway, Howard Fischer of the Arizona Daily Sun reported.

That group, the Arizona Tax Research Association, argues that the linguistic differences between the two version of the initiative are crucial, since one gives more money to education if additional revenues exceed $1 billion than the other.

If the initiative makes it onto the ballot and is approved by voters, 80 percent of the new revenue will go to the state's public schools, according to the website for Quality Education and Jobs. Assuming the extension of the tax increase will bring in $1 billion annually, that's $800 million more to education, no penny-ante game. The ballot would also establish a funding "floor" for education that state legislators would have to abide by, as well as scholarships for higher education and career and technical education.

The Arizona Education Association states that from fiscal 2009 to fiscal 2012, the state cut $198 million in "base level" funding for schools, not including other education-related cuts.

The "temporary" sales tax increase set to expire next year was approved in 2010 by Arizona voters. Readers who know GOP Gov. Jan Brewer only from national headlines may be surprised to learn that the increase had her explicit support, but I'm waiting to hear from Brewer's office if she supports extending the tax increase.

Just like candidates for state and national office, ballot initiatives have interesting and sometimes colorful and long histories in their respective states. For education advocates, many of them are worth watching later this summer and right through Nov. 6.

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