On this week's episode of Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel: Ahead of next week's vote on Proposition 123, we have Jason Freed, president of the Tucson Education Association, and Morgan Abraham, the chair of the opposition campaign to Prop 123, debating the pros and cons of the education-funding referendum. Then state Rep. Bruce Wheeler comes by to share his thoughts on the recently completed legislation session.
Tune into Zona Politics at 8 a.m. Sunday on the CW Tucson, Channel 8 on Cox and Comcast and Channel 58 on DirecTV, Dish and broadcast. You can also hear the show at 5 p.m. on KXCI Community Radio, 91.3 FM. Or you can watch the show online here.
Here's a rush transcript of the show:
Hello, everyone. I'm Tucson Weekly senior writer Jim Nintzel, your host for Zona Politics. Today, we're hosting a debate on prop 123, the education funding proposition that voters will decide this Tuesday, May 17. The proposition would increase withdrawals from the state land trust from 2.5 percent annually, to 6.9 percent annually for the next ten years to provide more funding for classrooms. All in all, proposition 123 would provide $3.5 billion in funding for schools over the next decade, or about $350 million a year. Joining me to debate their pros and cons of prop 123: Jason Freed, president of the Tucson Education Association, who supports the measure, and Morgan Abraham, chairman of the main opposition campaign to Prop 123. Thank you both for being here. Jason, let's start with you. Why do you think voters should support Prop. 123?
(Freed) We've got to start with the understanding, I think that we all agree in Arizona that we've done a poor job in funding public education in the state. We've done a poor job for a number of years, and so, we look and we realize, "We've got to fix this. We've got to fix this now." The "No" campaign is going to suggest this and that. They're going to talk about triggers. They're going to talk about taxes. You're going to talk about trusts. They'll tell you about the 49% trigger, which is actually, unfortunately, inconsequential, and we've not been close, anywhere close to that 49% any time in the recent past.
(Nintzel) When we're talking about 49 percent, we're talking about the idea that if 49 percent of the general fund goes to education, lawmakers do not need to increase education funding to adjust for inflation. We'll get to the details of that.
(Freed) Correct. Right. Right. And at this point we're at 42 percent. We have been for some time. And so when we look at it, we look at the reality, look at the reality of the situation and we say, "Education absolutely, desperately needs money." We know that. We know that we have a way to do this, to do this without raising taxes. We do this without somehow damaging the future, and the notion of anything to the contrary is actually, at this point, almost laughable. We have $5 billion in the trust fund that exists. That $5 billion when 123 passes will grow over the next ten years to $6 billion. And the "No" campaign is going to make suggestions on how that's—some interesting formula on how it's worth this and worth that. The reality is Arizonans understand that going from $5 billion to $6 billion, the account is still growing, and we're doing so in a sensible way, while making sure that we take care of public education for our kids.
(Nintzel) And Morgan, why are you opposed to the proposition?
(Abraham) First of all, we are on the same page, as far as money going to education. There's no question education and teachers need to be paid more. We see Proposition 123 as not any kind of win for education at all. Long term and short term. So we call it Three-Ts: triggers, trust, tax cuts. So triggers being that there are triggers built into this proposition that pull money for education, specifically one is the end-all, be all 49 percent trigger that prevents us from spending 49 percent of our general fund on education ever again.
(Nintzel, off camera) Again, I want to talk some more about those triggers.
(Abraham) Well, let's go over the details, but that's one of the reasons. The trust issue, which is huge, and I can't stress this more, we are dipping into the principal of the land trust. There's no question about that when you look at the numbers. And so the long-term consequences of that means education's going to get $100 million less, every year forever starting 2026. That's never a good thing, and then, of course the tax cuts. We have the budget surplus. There's no question. But even Republican treasurer Jeff DeWitt says we have the money to pay off this lawsuit. Why aren't we doing it with tax dollars? With budget surplus? The only thing we can see, why they want to spend trust money instead of tax money, they want to cut more taxes.
(Nintzel) And Jason, let's talk about the concern that this would take too much principal from the state land trust rather than just the interest that's generated each year. And I think the JLBC estimate is that the trust is worth, as you were saying, $4.8, $5 billion today, If the proposition passes, it will climb to $6.2 billion by 2025, but without the proposition it would grow to $9 billion, which would give you more annually in the long run. You're not that concerned about that.
(Freed) The reality is when you start saying, "We know that we need these funds. We need these funds, urgently.” If you're a sixth-grader in a school anywhere in Arizona, you have only known budget cuts in the State of Arizona. So when we look at that reality, we have an opportunity to say, "No, we're going to reverse that trend. We're going to increase funding. We're not going to do that on the backs of future generations.” Another statistic that's significant is that the land itself is valued at $70 billion. And so when you say that we've got a trust fund that's worth $5 billion, that will continue to grow, and that it's backed by land worth $70 billion, this is an appropriate use. We've been under-utilizing these finds, which really is criminal to the kids that are in education right now. We can't wait until some time down the road with litigation or this or that. We need these funds. We need these funds now, and we have a way to do so in a sensible way.
(Nintzel) And Morgan, you are concerned about the ....
(Abraham) I am concerned. Every financial planner in the state is concerned. Anyone who does finance for a living is concerned about this, because there's no question that when you draw seven percent out of a trust fund, a cash account that's invested in stocks and bonds, you're depleting the principle, so the raw numbers are right now we pull out 2.5 percent and we only get 6 percent on that as a return, so if you factor in inflation that's about a wash. Drawing that up to 7 percent is just ridiculous. There's no question we're drawing money out of the principal. The question is, why are we spending future teachers' and future students' money when we can just spend it right out of the general fund?
(Freed) I mean what's very frustrating and troubling for me, as a classroom teacher, I've spent my entire professional career as a teacher, and I represent them now as the president of the Tucson Education Association. It's outside forces telling the insiders how they should be doing their business and I've got to tell you, go to a school right now. Ask those folks, ask them ask them about the basic things that are not provided for our kids. And so then say, "Are you okay with waiting two years? Are you okay with waiting five years?" And they're not. We need this desperately, and so the notion that, when the outsiders say that. I'm a father as well, and I'm not okay with the funding that's in education right now, and I'm going to do everything that I can do to increase that funding for my kids, and for the students in Arizona schools.
(Abraham) I realize he said "outsiders" vs. "insiders," but by “outsiders,” he clearly means the citizens that have grandchildren and, you know, future teachers and future students, and by “insiders,” he means current teachers, so Jason only represents the current teachers, right now There was no negotiation for the future in this Proposition 123, so I hate that kind of concept that this was an insider deal. We weren't a part of this. The future generations of Arizona had no say in Proposition 123, and we're the ones who are paying for this, and we're the ones who are getting hurt by this.
(Nintzel) Let me bring up this whole "trigger" question, and, Morgan, I think the one that you've expressed the most concern about, is this whole question of if education funding reaches 49 percent of the general fund, then the state can suspend the inflation increases that are required now. Why are you concerned about that.
(Abraham) Yes. So right now we spend between 42 percent and 43 percent, Jason's right about that. The issue is, we have never had this type of budget before, in the history of Arizona—this smaller, leaner government, and whether you're for that or against that, there is no argument. Arizona is way leaner than we've ever been, and so as we continue to cut more taxes, that pie is going to shrink and shrink and shrink, and the percentage going to education will increase. On top of that we're so far away from where we were in 2007 as far as levels of spending In this current budget, if we were trying to infuse a magical tax a billion dollars to get us back to 2007 levels of spending, we would hit that trigger. We'd be at 50 percent of the general fund. So, it's scary to think that we are no longer able, through just that normal taxing mechanism, to hit 2007 level of funding, as long as this trigger exists.
(Nintzel) Jason, you're less concerned about reaching that trigger.
(Freed) We don't have any reason to be concerned about reaching that trigger. And that's just the reality. Whether you like the current legislature or you like or do not like the current governor. The reality is that there isn't a billion dollars that is going to be pumped into the system, regardless of what the state budget looks like, and, if that were to be the case, then what would have taken place this summer is that the governor would have written a check and settled this. That's not what happened. We have Proposition 123. And when I talk about the insiders, I'm talking about people in education. Talking about teachers. I'm talking about education groups. And I'm talking about those people who, like me, think it's not just about today, it's about the next 30 years, and it's about the future after that.
(Nintzel) And Jason, let me ask you this, what do you see happening if Prop 123 does not pass?
(Freed) That's what really concerns me, is that the "No" on 123 side has a lot of ideas and concepts, but they don't really have something solid. The reality is, if Prop 123 fails, we have less money for our kids, and it's just that simple. We made it more complex when we talk about triggers, and we talk about how people like or dislike the state government, and the reality is, if it gets voted down, there will not be a special session. There will not be somehow a change in the budget. This is what it is, and when we look at it, we say, so we have a reality that exists with less funding for public education, we have a reality that exists with more money for our kids.
(Nintzel) And Morgan, what do you think happens if Prop 123 does not pass?
(Abraham) This is honestly the big reason why we started this committee. It's not, you know—obviously Prop 123 is scary and it's not a good thing, but it's the clear solution to Prop 123 that's sitting in front of us: The budget surplus. I mean, we go around the state giving these talks, and people are angry that our government's not using the surplus and wants to draw from the trust and deplete future money from teachers and students. I was having a conversation with a Republican legislator last night who said he would be for this. We have a Republican treasurer, Jeff DeWitt who is for this. Obviously the Democratic caucus is for this. I mean, it doesn't make sense why we're not doing it. Again, I was just on conservative talk radio this morning. Even they weren’t for it. They cannot stand the fiscal irresponsibility of spending future dollars when you have the money right now. So, this isn't Republican or Democrat, the reason why we can't do it. There's a solution in front of us. It's such a better solution. There's no question about that. Why aren't we doing it? And we're saying, "If 123 fails, with the leadership of Jeff DeWitt, with the leadership of the legislature, we can get this done.”
(Nintzel) And, Jason ... the court fight would resume if this does not go through. And what happens regarding education funding if this goes back to the courts?
(Freed) It does have to go back. I do think it's odd to talk about that there is an alternative plan. This comes from the governor. This comes from the legislature. So to think that the legislature has a better plan that what they created seems confusing to Arizonans. We certainly could pick up the lawsuit, and we will. The understanding with that though, is when we look at it, we say, what is the likelihood of anything different happening. We know what's already happened. The court said, "Yes." The court also can't dictate to the state legislature how to spend their funds.
(Abraham) Five to nothing state Supreme Court ruling in favor of the teachers. Said to the legislature, "Pay up." We were not at the part where they force the legislature to pay up. We were still negotiating how much money it owed, but the Supreme Court could not have made it clearer the legislature (must pay) so the worst thing is not a matter of if they pay, it's a matter of when.
(Nintzel) They could tie it up in court for some time.
(Abraham) Sure! That's of course without the political reality. We see that there's easily a coalition based on legislators on both sides of the aisle that we've talked to. They can pass a budget using the budget surplus. Not raising taxes, not cutting anything to pass a bill that settles for exactly how much money Prop 123 gives schools.
(Freed) So we can do this hope and a dream for our kids and hope that there is this alternative plan that somehow, Treasurer DeWitt has been able to magically make appear, and as opposed to saying, "We're going to find a way to take care of our kids today.”
(Nintzel) We've got 45 seconds left. I want you both to take 20 seconds and give your best final case. Jason, start with you.
(Freed) Certainly. It's very simple. It's absolutely simple. The reality is, our kids need the funding. Our teachers need the funding. We absolutely must pass Proposition 123 on Tuesday.
(Abraham) There's no question Proposition 123 is not a good thing for education. That's already, you know, we've already figured that out. The question is, do you see a political reality to get money to schools, and we're saying, "Yes. There is." Republicans are for it. The Democrats are for it. We can get a budget passed that has as much money to settle this lawsuit. And we don't have to do the negative things in Proposition 123.
(Nintzel) Alright. Well voters will decide on Tuesday, May 17. Thank both my guests, Jason Freed from the Tucson Education Association and Morgan Abraham from the "No on Prop 123" campaign. We'll be right back with state lawmaker Bruce Wheeler.
And we're back with Zona Politics. I'm your host Jim Nintzel, and joining us now is state representative Bruce Wheeler. Representative Wheeler completed his final session of the Arizona Legislature last week, and he's decided not to seek re-election to his District 10 seat. Bruce, welcome to Zona Politics.
(Wheeler) Jim, thank you for having me.
(Nintzel) So was it like the last day of school where you throw your books up in the air and you're all done with lawmaking for awhile?
(Wheeler) Well, not in the sense that we ... we had nothing to celebrate. In school, you celebrate moving on, but we didn't really accomplish too much, particularly in the education field. So, unfortunately it was not a very productive session, in my opinion.
(Nintzel) On a scale from one to ten, with one being the worst you ever experienced and ten being absolute joy to do the people's business, how would you rate this session.
(Wheeler) Oh, probably a six. Seven.
(Nintzel) What were the biggest wins of the session?
(Wheeler) Well the biggest win undoubtedly was KidsCare. Getting KidsCare active. We were the only state not to have it, so we added 30,000 low-income children to have the possibility of having health insurance. So that was a big win. The governor was resisting The president of the senate opposed it. We passed it with large margins out of the House several months, two months ago, and then it got held by one person, the president of the Senate, and then we managed to perform some maneuvering on a bill, we managed to get it passed last week.
(Nintzel) And that is federal dollars coming to the state to pay for that program.
(Wheeler) Jim, it's money that we pay in our federal taxes, and if we don't use it, some other state would use it so, yeah, it will not cost the taxpayers of Arizona any money for two years, and that hopefully will be extended for another three after that.
(Nintzel) What were your biggest disappointments this session?
(Wheeler) Well, the biggest disappointment of all was still we were not making progress on funding public education. After the major cuts in 2008, after the major recession, we still are nowhere near making up and restoring those funds. For instance, a year ago, we had a surplus, and we cut $99 million dollars from the three state universities. We cut $116 million from K-12. We eliminated aid to community colleges. This year, second year in a row with a surplus, and we still didn't make that up. Democrats had an amendment to at least go back and make up for the $116 from K-12. It didn't pass. Universities gained about $32 million. Five million of that is mandated for certain propaganda schools, so we still aren't making up for the cuts from last year, so that's my biggest disappointment.
(Nintzel) Propaganda schools, as you call them. That was $5 million earmarked for some schools that have backing from the Koch brothers. What's the deal with these schools?
(Wheeler) Well, it's purely ideological, and I urge people to either Google or go on YouTube and look up William Boyes, he's the head of the ASU Center for Liberty Studies, economic liberty, something like that. He's going to be the beneficiary of the $3 million that goes to ASU. And so they're going to build, they use the word "Liberty and Freedom" schools, but obviously it's ideological. ASU, the Carey School of Economics, UA Eller School of Economics. These are premiere, high quality economic schools in the country, so, we don't need these ideological, right-wing schools to be mouthing off propaganda and right-wing economic philosophies, and that's what they do. Those $5 million are earmarked only for that purpose. The legislature never does that. They go “University, here's money. You spend it the way you want.” In these two cases, UA and ASU have to spend the money on these two propaganda schools.
(Nintzel) And there was legislation that appears to make it a lot harder to investigate the "dark money" groups by limiting the ability of the state to look into what these nonprofit organizations are doing when they're spending huge sums on elections. Your thoughts on that legislation?
(Wheeler) Well, it's really too ba.d And that's another disappointment, that dark money continues to enjoy the support of the governor, of the majority party and large economic interests, not only in Arizona but throughout the country. The Koch brothers, of course, are the most familiar people. But these so-called social welfare, nonprofit tax-exempt organizations that funnel money into elections don't have to report their contributions or expenditures. I think it’s a travesty and very harmful to democracy. So there were two bills that passed that allow it to go on, in one sense, and the other one actually makes it harder for people to do the referendum process, which is very important to let Arizonans to actually undo this. So it just makes it more difficult to shed light on dark money and its sources.
(Nintzel) Supporters of this legislation are saying, anonymous speeches is important to political discourse. Your thoughts on that whole question.
(Wheeler) Well the founding fathers never conceived of a corporation having the rights of an individual, so when Mitt Romney says “Corporations are people, too,” I think it should elicit ridicule, because freedom of speech for a corporation that has unlimited amounts of billions of dollars to be able to speak, versus your and my ability to speak is—there's a huge difference, so I think it's contrary to freedom of speech in the First Amendment rights.
(Nintzel) There was legislation, a bill that prevented what they called "ballot harvesting," ballot collection, and the idea that groups would go out and collect early ballots from voters and then turn them in. Your thoughts on that legislation.
(Wheeler) Jim, I think it's another continuation of efforts to suppress people's right to vote. So there are obstacles that have constantly been thrown in the way, making it more difficult. So certain types of ID to be able to go vote. We've seen the snafus on March 22 during the presidential preference election, in which thousands of people had to line up for many hours and who knows how many thousands just gave up and didn't vote. So, it's just another way of making things more difficult. What is wrong with me going to my neighbors' homes and picking up their ballot, if they ask me to, and delivering them to the voting place. There's nothing wrong with that, and this makes it more difficult to people who are unable to or makes it more different for them to get their ballot in.
(Nintzel) It looks like we're not going to have any more greyhound racing here in Southern Arizona. It's a positive step forward for the dogs?
(Wheeler) Well, in my opinion, yes. Very big. Effective December 31 of this year, Arizona will no longer have dog racing. That's a huge development for us because of the well-documented mistreatment of greyhound dogs, and I just think it's very abusive and inhumane, and it's about time that we terminate that. And I look forward to South Tucson being able to use that racetrack for economic development purposes and put it to service for the community.
(Nintzel) There was legislation that would strip the state-shared revenues from the cities if they passed some kind of ordinance that the attorney general believes conflicts with state statutes, rather than a court. You were opposed to that legislation as well.
(Wheeler) Sure. And also that legislation allows for just one legislator to make the complaint. And that complaint goes directly to the attorney general, and the attorney general by himself can determine whether to continue to share revenues with the municipality. I think that that's unconstitutional. I have no doubt, in fact I'm sure it's going to be challenged, and it's probably going to be overturned in court. So here's another piece of legislation that's contrary to democratic principles, and we're going to have court costs that the taxpayers are going to have to pay for and it's going to probably be overturned.
(Nintzel) You had a similar situation with legislation that would looks like is setting up ability for the state to stop funding planned parenthood health clinics, for the work that they do for women outside of abortions—the healthcare checkups, the sexually transmitted disease treatments, cancer screenings, birth control. You were opposed to that as well.
(Wheeler) Yeah, I think it's a shame that these ideologues continue to attack Planned Parenthood, who—keep in mind—does a lot more, and provides many more services than just abortion services to women. It also provides all types of health care to all members of the family, and so I think you know, it's a valuable service to our community. It's unfortunate that the ideologues continue to want to defund Planned Parenthood. It's a national movement and it'll go on for awhile, but so far, obviously, they have not been as successful at least in the courts as they want to be
(Nintzel) Right. They tried this a few years ago and the courts rejected it and then they ended up having to pay Planned Parenthood's legal bills on top of everything else.
(Wheeler) I was just going to mention that the taxpayer of Arizona is paying Planned Parenthood's legal bills, and it's in the millions. I forgot how much it is but it definitely is in the millions.
(Nintzel) The whole budget process seems like you have a situation where the budgets get written behind closed doors. They come out with middle-of-the-night votes with very little testimony or ability for the public to weigh in on any of this. Your thoughts on how this has changed from when you were there decades ago, in the 1970s.
(Wheeler) I hope it changes, and I hope people are paying attention. There is an election November 8. Yes, it's a travesty that there are no public hearings once the budget is in its final rounds of the last two weeks, in which the objective of the leadership is to get the majority votes necessary in each chamber. And so, those are closed-door meetings. Democrats are completely excluded from the process. The public is completely excluded from the process. Once they have the votes, and sometimes it's late at night, then they'll have a committee hearing for the appropriations committee started hearing the budget, I believe, at 10 p.m., when they started hearing the budget So there's no opportunity for people to participate, the public to participate. So it's very closed. It's very selective and it's very undemocratic in my opinion. And then the process finishes, in our case, last week, at 5:45 in the morning. So you can imagine, we start late at night, and we go all night until 5:45, supposedly debating things, but the votes are already in the bag, and it's already fixed, and there's the opposition is pointing out how bad the budget is.
(Nintzel) You had a strange situation up there toward the end of the session when all of a sudden reporters were asked to undergo background checks in the House, and for a few days refused to do that and had to cover it from up in the gallery and then, eventually, the House speaker relented and let them back on the House floor. What was your take on all of that.
(Wheeler) Very bizarre. Very bizarre. Interestingly, the speaker didn't even share that decision within his own caucus The leadership of his caucus knew, but, to exclude the media from a right and a privilege they have had since the 1960s was counterproductive. It was politically dumb. It was counterproductive. He lost a lot of credibility within his own caucus, with the public, with the media, and so, yes, he was forced to retract within five days, I believe.
(Nintzel) And it sounds like a lot of this was targeted toward a single reporter, Hank Stephenson of the Capitol Times, because of some reporting he did on the speaker that he had used some state vehicles and his reimbursements that he had to pay the state back, and other issues.
(Wheeler) It clearly and definitely was a response and retribution to Hank Stephenson He was the one that exposed the abuse of the speaker and the majority leader using state vehicles at taxpayer expense for campaign purposes An example, well documented, was going from Phoenix to Tucson for five days and putting 4,800 miles on the odometer, then charging the taxpayers for that. And he's conducting campaign events in his congressional district, the one he's running in. Hank exposed that, and Hank was harassed. I received calls from the Capitol Times asking me what I had heard because allegations, vicious allegations were made against Hank. And, you know, he's a person of integrity. His reporting stood up to the facts. And I want to commend him. I think he did a great job, and yes, that's why the Speaker did it. That's why the Speaker decided to outlaw him, bar the media from the floor of the people's House of Representatives, and then he was forced to retract within five days.
(Nintzel) Alright. Well, that's all we have time for, but Bruce Wheeler, thanks so much for coming in, talking to us about what happened there in the session and we'll be right back with some closing thoughts.