Arizona's Constitution strictly limits the amount of taxes school districts can levy. If they want more, they have to ask voters to override the limits. But 19 school districts, including Phoenix, Tucson, Tempe, Mesa, Scottsdale, Roosevelt, Agua Fria, and Window Rock, enjoy an exception that swallows the rule: the so-called "desegregation tax override.
The law, enacted in 1985, allows school districts that are subject to desegregation orders or which have agreements with the U.S. Department of Education stemming from "alleged or proven racial discrimination" to evade revenue limits to fund services "required or permitted" by the orders or agreements. Notice the language: "alleged" rather proven discrimination is sufficient to justify expenses that are "permitted" rather than required by the agreements. Can you say "windfall"?
Not surprisingly, many districts have exploited the exemption, causing taxing and spending disparities among school districts. Because residential property taxes are constitutionally capped, the burden is borne primarily by businesses.
The Legislature has tried repeatedly to correct its mistake. At times it has capped the overrides, and now has frozen the number of eligible districts, but that only makes the playing field even less level. It has been unable to repeal the law, given that so many school districts have an incentive to protect their special goodies.
The law may have been well-intentioned at the outset, but it was unnecessary given that federal desegregation decrees on their own terms trump state law. As for allowing overrides for the 17 school districts that have "administrative agreements" with the Department of Education, the legislature has no power to ignore the state constitution-which it did not only by overriding school district revenue limits but by depriving voters of their right to approve them. Stay tuned for a legal challenge to vindicate the rights of taxpayers and voters.
Clint Bolick is the director of the Goldwater Institute Scharf-Norton Center for Constitutional Litigation.
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