The state Legislature should pay schools the inflation adjustments recently ordered by the courts and further increase spending on schools and higher education, state legislative candidate Lanny Morrison told a gathering of the Democratic Club of Northern Gila County last week.
Morrison is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination in Legislative District 4, a district that represents all of Northern Gila County. He hopes to unseat either Flagstaff Republican Bob Thorpe or Payson Republican Brenda Barton, since the district has two seats in the state House and one in the state Senate.
He conceded that he faces an uphill battle trying to defeat Republican incumbents in a district where Republicans have an edge in registration. “In order to win, I have to get Republicans and Independents voting for me as well.”
But he said many voters want to provide adequate funding for education and stop making Arizona a punchline on national comedy shows.
He said the state should raise taxes if necessary, to comply with the court order to restore the inflation funding for K-12 schools approved by the voters in 2000 and denied by the Legislature for three or four years during the recession.
The Legislature voted the deepest K-12 cuts in the nation during the recession, but people won’t move to Arizona and good businesses won’t relocate when we’re last in per-student funding and have only mediocre test scores.
“If we keep reducing taxes on business and don’t expand our economy, then we’re just compressing the amount of revenue that’s available. I understand business needs to make a profit — but if we’re going to compete, we need a trained workforce and to create a place where people want to stay,” said the business and political consultant.
Thorpe and Barton in previous discussions of education have said the best way to find more money for schools is to grow the economy, win control of federal lands and enact additional tax cuts — especially for business. They have said the problem doesn’t lie in a lack of education funding, but in the impact of federal mandates and the waste of money not spent in the classroom.
But Morrison argued that the state must provide good schools, affordable universities and core social services to attract businesses and population growth. He said closing sales tax exemptions, increasing taxes on cigarettes, alcohol and gasoline and other changes would provide for an increase in school funding — which would in turn attract new businesses and create a more efficient workforce.
“I understand business,” he said, recounting a recent conference he attended in the Valley on how Arizona can build a bigger biosciences industry. “The biosciences industry is a $14 billion industry in this state. They’re telling me what they need — and that’s a better workforce and a better educational system.”
He argued that the state needs more moderate Republicans and Democrats in the Legislature. At present, the Republicans have such lopsided control that even Republican moderates have little say and the state’s politics have become increasingly extreme.
But if voters bolster the ranks of the moderates and pragmatists, the state will shift toward a more balanced, workable approach, he said.
“We have to have bipartisan solutions,” he said.
As an example, he cited the increasingly confrontational approach state officials have taken in demanding federal immigration reforms. “We have this humanitarian crisis. But the federal government has to undertake comprehensive immigration reform. You can’t be finger-wagging, like the governor did with President Obama. You have to be very careful about these things. I know how to get people working together. You don’t do it by shaking your fist at people.”
But mostly he focused on the need to improve the educational system and increase funding. He remained vague on how much he would spend — and where he would get the money. Currently, the state spends about 40 percent of the general fund on K-12 education and another 8 percent on higher education. Another 40 percent goes to health and welfare programs, which the state can’t readily cut without losing far more federal money than it saves from state budget cutting.
Enacting any new tax requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. The state currently has one of the nation’s lowest income tax rates, but a relatively high sales tax.
Moreover, a judge recently ordered the state to immediately boost school funding by $316 million to make up for having ignored a voter-improved requirement for annual inflation adjustments for K-12 districts. Complying with the court order immediately could consume most of the state’s recently accumulated reserve fund.
But Morrison insisted, “We’re going to have to increase state funding. We’ve had this big drop in K-12 funding — we’ve lost teachers, have bigger class sizes. We’ve lost teachers’ aides and we’re closing schools. I was at an Arizona Education Association convention and the teachers were talking and now every person in that room it seemed needed an extra job to feed their families.”
He said the state Legislature must focus on solving problems instead of on political ideology.
“I’m a pragmatist. I try to find common solutions. People say, ‘What are you going to do when you get to the Legislature?’ I’ll try to sit down with every member of the Legislature and see if we can come to one area of agreement — then work on that. We have to learn to work together. It’s the only way we’re going to come up with solutions in the long run.”