There are not enough votes in the Arizona Legislature to reinstate a statewide county education equalization property tax, Republican District 26 Sen. Al Melvin asserted Friday.
“Bringing back the $250 million property tax is not going to happen, at least not with this Legislature,” the first-term SaddleBrooke legislator said in a Friday telephone interview. “I can speak with confidence and authority about that. We will not vote for that tax to come back, and the votes are not here for an increase in the sales tax, both of which have been talked about in the press.”
A statewide county education equalization property tax was suspended by the Legislature for three years in 2006. Advocates for education have called for its resumption during a time when Arizona faces a budget deficit.
Tuition tax credits for donations to private or public schools won’t be removed, Melvin said.
“Those credits will remain, at least for the next two years while the conservative Republicans have a majority,” he said. “Neither one of those tuition tax credits will be in jeopardy. Neither one will go away. If anything, we would like to increase them.”
Melvin said about $58 million goes to Arizona private schools each year through the tuition tax credit system. “It benefits about 28,000 students. If it went away, the public school system would be flooded with the majority of those students from private schools. It would be a huge, detrimental hit to the public system.”
Melvin said the Legislature is “doing everything we can to minimize reductions for K-12 and the universities, but unfortunately, with almost a $2 billion deficit in ’09, and a $3 billion deficit in ’10, we have to make some reductions.”
Arizona has a general fund of approximately $10 billion. Of that, $4.5 billion goes to K-12 education, and $1.5 billion to Arizona’s three state-funded universities, the senator said.
Immediate budget reductions for the current fiscal year are “about a 3.2 percent reduction for K-12, from general fund money, and when you throw in the federal money, about a 1.2 percent reduction,” Melvin said.
Melvin believes Arizona has an opportunity to recruit businesses from California, which has approved tax increases to balance its budget. “Corporations and companies there are looking to leave that state, to leave over-taxation, over-regulation, over-unionization. We’re trying to roll out a red carpet here. Raising taxes is no way to recruit new businesses and new jobs. That (property tax) increase, and a possible sales tax increase, the votes do not exist in this Legislature.”
Melvin disagrees with “this constant drum-beating that we’re 49th in the nation” in per-capita education funding.
“In reality, we’re 31st in teacher pay, there’s some good news here, too, but it’s drowned out by this 49th drum,” Melvin said. It’s bothered him further that organizations and local governments are “beating that same drum, when in my legislative district, the schools can compare with any schools in the Southwest, and in the nation, for that matter.
“Look at the data available and report the facts. It’s easy to be caught up in the emotional drumbeat. But we have an obligation to tell the truth here, and to educate your readers, my constituents, and that’s what I fully intend to do,” Melvin said, “knowing I will be ambushed along the way.
“I contend, and truly believe, that we’ve got some of the finest school districts and schools in the nation right here in District 26,” Melvin said. “I will also admit we’ve got some miserable schools to the south, TUSD, and the north.”
Legislators are “still trying to find out exactly how much money will flow to Arizona in the so-called Obama stimulus package,” Melvin said. “We think it’s about $4 billion, ’09 and ’10. We’re still trying to find out how much that is. We hope there’s about $4 billion available to the state over the next two years, and we hope to use it … for education, health and other areas. We definitely do want to use it. We just hope there are no onerous strings attached.”
Federal stimulus funds are a “key part” of the budget-balancing process, Melvin said. He does not endorse the “so-called Obama stimulus plan,” but said “it’s there. We’re not going to say ‘no’ to what appears to be about $4 billion. We’re not happy to see the best medical system in the world be socialized, but it appears there’s about $4 billion in this package that can be used to help us balance the budget with not too many strings attached. It’s there, and we’re going to use it.”
Melvin has learned “the budget process is a difficult thing, especially when we’re in the situation we’re in. The last 5-6 years, we’ve had major increases in our state budget, double-digit increases, when we only had single-digit total increases in population and inflation. We’re now paying the bill for inflated budgets that took place over the last five to six years.”
Melvin is hosting a series of “town hall” meetings in his district Saturday.
“I fully realize that in some of these locations I’m going to run into a buzz saw,” Melvin said. “I’m hopeful people will be civil.”