Arizona Republican officials have idea to raise teacher pay
By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services
PHOENIX -- Republican lawmakers are pushing a plan to tap the state land trust to fund $4,000-a-year pay raises for teachers.
Proponents said Monday the proposal, which would need to be approved by voters next year, would boost average teacher pay in Arizona to more than $60,000 a year. That is slightly higher than the current national average.
And the starting pay would hit an average of $44,415, a figure that Senate President Warren Petersen said would be the 14th highest in the country.
It also would be set up so the proceeds from the land trust could be spent only on teacher pay.
Petersen noted that lawmakers approved a plan years ago, though not using trust funds, to boost teacher pay by 20% over four years. But he said a study by the state Auditor General's Office said the average salary hike was just 16%.
``Many school districts did not do the right thing,'' the Gilbert Republican said at a press conference to announce the plan.
State Schools Chief Tom Horne, also a Republican, said he believes the $300 million that the plan would raise will help the state attract and retain teachers.
He said Arizona loses about 40% of its teachers in the first four years, with another 23% in years five through nine.
``We lose good teachers to surrounding states that can afford to pay more,'' Horne said. ``We can't afford to do that.''
It's being sold essentially as free money, with no tax increase. And it all depends on the state land trust.
The federal government gave Arizona 10 million acres when it became a state in 1912 with the restriction that it be held for the benefit of certain beneficiaries, mostly public schools.
Some of that has been sold off for development. About 9.2 million acres remain, available for lease for farming, commercial and grazing.
Earnings from the trust go to the beneficiaries. And schools also get 2.5% annually from what is in the trust.
What this proposes is to increase the amount of money that can be taken from the corpus -- the body of the trust -- each year to 6.9%, with the estimated $300 million in proceeds specifically earmarked for teacher pay.
The idea is not new.
Voters narrowly approved a similar measure in 2016.
Pushed by then-Gov. Doug Ducey, Proposition 123, it permitted the state to take an extra $3.5 billion from the trust over 10 years. Those dollars were earmarked to end a lawsuit filed against the state for ignoring a voter mandate to boost aid to education annually to account for education.
Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, who was Ducey's chief financial officer at the time, said that the money still being taken out of the trust will no longer be needed after it expires on June 30, 2025.
What the new proposal would do is pick up on July 1, 202 where Prop 123 leaves off, continuing the same extra withdrawals from the trust --, but this time with the dollars solely for teacher salaries.
Petersen acknowledged that the program is built on the premise that the trust will earn enough money -- even with the withdrawals -- to continue to generate not only the regular revenues for K-12 education but the additional dollars for teacher pay. But the Senate President said he remains confident the numbers will hold up.
``This was feared last time,'' he said, when there were people who doubted the financial stability of Proposition 123. That included Jeff DeWit, currently chairman of the Arizona Republican Party, who at the time was the state treasurer.
``Not only was it unfounded, not only were they wrong, but the fund nearly doubled,'' Petersen said, even with the extra withdrawals. ``We also project that the fund will continue to grow.''
And if it doesn't?
Gress said the measure will be structured so if the additional withdrawals don't cover the promised salary hikes the difference will have to be made up from the state budget. The bottom line, he said, is that if voters approve the measure next year, the additional wages will continue regardless of the trust balance.
For how long, however, remains to be decided.
Gress said there are negotiations to determine whether it would be eight or 10 years.
In whichever case, that also means any pay boost beyond its expiration date would either require lawmakers to absorb the cost in the regular state budget or get new voter approval.
There was no immediate response from Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs. Press aide Christian Slater said his boss is waiting to see details.
But whatever Hobbs decides is legally irrelevant, as this measure would go directly to voters. And the governor has no veto power over such referrals.
There was less hesitation, however, from Marisol Garcia, the president of the Arizona Education Association.
``Finally, this is a priority of the Republicans,'' she said. ``Can't wait to sit down with Rep. Gress and have some conversations with him.''
Still, Garcia wants more specifics.
``The devil is always in the details,'' she said.
One of those details, however, is who will be included.
"Our education support professionals are seriously underpaid,'' Garcia said, saying this should extend to custodians, bus drivers, librarians and counselors.
Gress said that's not going to happen.
"The highest vacancies, the hardest positions to fill are classroom teachers,'' he said.
And there's another X factor: Will the voters approve.
Proposition 123 passed by a margin of 51-49%.
But Garcia also pointed out that measure was driven not by teachers but by Ducey, even though the Arizona Education Association had been in support.
``I think voters always want to support public education,'' she said. This time, Garcia said, teachers should be ``able to sit at the table with these folks and do it appropriately.''
``We want to do anything we can to get our salaries fixed,'' she said.
Petersen acknowledged that, even with the increases, there will be other states in the area that will pay more. So will the $4,000 boost be enough?
``That's a great question,'' he said.
``But this is a big effort and a big move,'' Petersen continued. ``And what it is is a huge move in the right direction.''
Anyway, he said, it's not just about salaries.
``Arizona has a lot of things, I think, that are much better than other states,'' Petersen said.
``We're always one of the states with the highest growth,'' he said. ``So I believe this, combined with all the great things we offer, will definitely encourage us to have more teachers.''
Gress had a legislative proposal this past session to fund $10,000 pay raises for teachers. It cleared the House but got tangled up in budget negotiations.
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