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Arizona Supreme Court Gives Voters Final Say On Invest In Ed

Arizonans will get a chance to decide if they want to hike taxes on the state's most wealthy to help fund K-12 education.

In a brief order, the Arizona Supreme Court concluded that the 100-word description on petitions for the Invest in Education measure "did not create a significant danger of confusion or unfairness.'' 

The unanimous order reverses the decision by Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Christopher Coury, who concluded that backers of the measure "circulated an opaque Trojan horse of a 100-word description, concealing principal provisions of the initiative.''

Justices also found that various methods of providing bonuses and incentives to paid petition circulators did not run afoul of state laws that prohibit paying people on a per-signature basis.

Wednesday's ruling is most immediately a setback for the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which financed the successful legal bid to keep a nearly identical measure from going to voters two years ago. That means the business group and its allies now will be forced to make their arguments to voters that a tax hike — even one that affects only the top 4% of wage earners — is bad public policy.

But proponents contend that the current tax structure, including income, sales and property taxes, actually benefits the richest Arizonans, saying they pay proportionately less of their income to support government and public education than those at the bottom.

Proposition 210 would add a 3.5% surcharge on all incomes above $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for couples. Anyone whose income did not reach the threshold would be unaffected.

Proponents say that could raise $940 million a year; legislative budget staffers put the anticipated take at $827 million for the first year.

Of whatever is collected, 50% is earmarked for hiring and raises for teachers and classroom support personnel, with 25% for other support personnel and 10% for programs to attract and retain new teachers.

Another 12% is for career and workforce training programs, with the balance set aside for the Arizona Teachers Academy, which provides free college tuition to those who agree to go into teaching.

Jaime Molera, who chairs the chamber-financed opposition group, called Wednesday's ruling a "disappointment.”' He still believes that proponents "deceived voters with a flawed and misleading 100-word petition summary.'' 

But he said the ultimate appeal will be in the "court of public opinion.''

Amber Gould, who chairs the Invest in Education campaign, called Wednesday's ruling "an important victory because it gives millions of Arizona voters the opportunity to put more resources into our schools.'' 

And she said that focusing the burden on the most wealthy ensures that it will not impact working and middle-class families who have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. Doug Ducey already has staked out a position against the tax hike on the most wealthy.

"That's a whopping amount, especially considering that our economy is recovering from recession and high unemployment,'' he wrote in a statement against the measure.