Last summer, Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Katherine Cooper issued an order requiring the Arizona State Legislature to immediately increase current funding for all schools districts to levels consistent with inflation, as required by Proposition 30. At the heart of the case lies the right of voters to order their state legislature to adequately fund public schools. Last month, the legislature filed a motion to stay that order in the Court of Appeals.
In 2000, voters passed a ballot initiative, Proposition 301, that requires the Legislature to annually increase funding by the rate of inflation (or 2%, if it is lower). The Legislature complied with the mandates of this law up until the Great Recession, and has since continued to ignore its mandates even during the recovery citing budget shortfalls. Since the case was filed in 2010, the Arizona Supreme Court, the Arizona Court of Appeals, and now the Maricopa County Superior Court, on remand from the state’s higher courts, have all agreed that the voters were well within their constitutional rights to mandate that the Legislature increase school funding consistent with the rate of inflation and that the Legislature lacked the constitutional authority to disregard the will of the people.
Despite these multiple court orders, and the clear directive from the state’s voters, to properly fund education in Arizona, the Legislature, proclaiming impending fiscal doom, is now seeking to block – or at least significantly delay – Judge Cooper’s order to immediately pay the school districts the amounts owed to them under Proposition 301. In their motion, the Legislature asks the Arizona Court of Appeals to confirm that it is entitled to an automatic stay because the order is a “‘money judgment’ ostensibly requiring the State to immediately commence paying hundreds of millions of dollars in new state funding during the current fiscal year, despite the fact that the State is already grappling with a large budget shortfall” of $189 million. As an alternative, the Legislature seeks the entry of a discretionary stay “so that the legislative and executive branches will not be forced to make enormous budget cuts and other policy decisions impacting important state programs that would be unnecessary if the State prevails on appeal.” The Legislature claims that in the absence of its requested relief (i.e., if it is ordered to make the appropriations required by Proposition 301 as set forth in Judge Cooper’s order), the state will have a budget shortfall of $520 million for the current fiscal year, and could face a budget shortfall in the billions of dollars in fiscal year 2015-2016. Plaintiffs have filed a motion opposing the State’s motion to stay. The state’s motion is currently awaiting a ruling from the Court of Appeals.