Arizona Proposition 204: Taxation After Misrepresentation

| September 10 2012
Hannah Thoreson

The so-called Quality Jobs and Education Act, a ballot initiative that will be featured in the November election, is a flawed attempt to fix the problems with public education in Arizona by simply shoveling money into the state budget.  Voters are also being misled about where the funding actually goes; much of it goes to expenses totally unrelated to education.  Supporters of Prop 204 are also taking credit for reforms that have already passed by tying them to their pitch for a tax hike.

Prop 204 raises the state sales tax by 18%, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars annually into a broken public education system.  There are some token funds for technology and other goodies that students might actually get to use, but most of the education-related funding will go to salaries and administrative overhead.  Low student achievement and graduation rates are big problems, but just handing money to school districts will not solve those problems.

Moreover, not all of the funding is going to K-12 schools as one could be led to believe by the promotional materials.  A lot of the money goes to need- or merit-based college-level scholarships or to community colleges throughout the state.  This is not the bill of goods being sold by the measure’s proponents.

The actual text of Proposition 204 is a an extremely vague wishlist for government spending on things that mostly have nothing to do with jobs or education.  Most of the proposals are not specific or targeted at any achievable, quantifiable goals beyond simply spending certain amounts of money on various broad categories of government spending.  The only specific spending requests are the ones that are more like earmarks:  a million here, a million there out of a proposal that allocates a billion dollars in annual spending.

For example, there are numerous provisions that enable schools, universities, or even government-at-large to spend (“invest”) on new buildings or property.  Is this spending that will really translate into higher student achievement?  Universities spend enormous sums of money on country club-style landscaping, yet many of the students who attend them learn very little.

Prop 204 also establishes a state infrastructure fund.  Think of it as Recovery Act, Pt. II.  The funds can be used for anything from roads and bridges to “passenger rail systems”.  In other words, proponents of this measure are sneaking in funding for an expansion of the over-budget and underused Phoenix light rail system.  This is something that should be controversial enough to merit its own debate, and does not belong attached to the Quality Jobs and Education sales tax measure.

Taxpayers will certainly be getting an education if Prop 204 passes on November 6, but there is no guarantee that increasing the state sales tax will improve the quality of public schools in Arizona.  Education reform is absolutely needed, but this initiative is basically just an extraneous state budget for spending projects that would never be able to make it through the legislature.  A sales tax marketed as an increase in education funding is not the appropriate way to approach hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on health care and infrastructure.  

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