Prop 123: ‘Vote Yes’ campaign pushes education message across state; ‘Vote No’ hoping to protect land trust

With May’s special election fast approaching, supporters and opponents of Proposition 123 – the multi-billion dollar proposal to divert money from the Arizona land trust to boost education funding – are trying get their voters to the polls.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey developed the plan and state lawmakers set the May 17 election to put it in front of voters. It would allocate $3.5 billion to state education during the next 10 years. Funding would be split in two parts. Most of the money – about $2 billion – will come from the state’s land trusts and the remainder will come from the general fund.

Let’s Vote Yes for Arizona, the committee working to pass Proposition 123, had raised $1.75 million dollars in donations by early January, allowing it to flex its muscle across the state.

“We’re working with all of our partners to have them address their members,” Let’s Vote Yes for Arizona spokesperson Christian Palmer said. “We’re getting out the word on exactly what Prop 123 does, why it’s needed, who it helps and, most importantly, that it’s on the ballot May 17.”

Vote NO on Prop 123 is projecting donations of between $30,000 and $50,000 for the election cycle, leaving chairman Morgan Abraham to look realistically at his campaign.

“It’s kind of David vs. Goliath,” Abraham said. “We’re incredibly underfunded and we’re not going to be at an even playing field, but we’re going to do our best to get the information out there.”

With the large monetary divide, Abraham has been forced to become more economical when spreading his message, but has done so with some success, he said.

“We’re just hitting free media as much as possible,” Abraham said. “Newspapers, radio, TV. Just trying to be strategic and smart about how we spend our money. People are obviously very interested about 123 and kind of have realized that it’s not all it seems to be and there’s more to it and a lot of people are interested to kind of hear what the other viewpoint is on Prop 123.”

Finding more money for education has been a focus at the state capitol in recent years. Arizona routinely places in the bottom five in most aspects of public education and funding.

“What Prop 123’s biggest impact will be is giving $3.5 billion to schools and that will be starting immediately,” Palmer said. “It is going to have a sizable impact in districts that are looking to give teachers raises and for teachers that are eager to stay in the profession.”

Reception of Proposition 123 has been positive from many legislators and citizens, especially those in education. In a study conducted by Expect More Arizona in December, Arizona residents overwhelmingly voted education – and specifically education funding – as “the most important issue facing our state.”

Ducey’s newest budget proposal would leave the state nearly $600 million in the black, leaving Proposition 123’s opponents to wonder if more money should be allocated from the surplus instead of taking from the land trust.

“We have a surplus in the general fund,” Abraham said. “Our group thinks it would be a great idea to spend that money instead of raiding the land trusts.”

“You have to ask yourself, ‘why aren’t we spending the budget surplus on education?’ That’s money the taxpayers have paid to the state that we’re don’t plan on spending, it’s just sitting there. Our group is kind of pointing to the answer that it will kind of lead to more tax cuts.”

That “raiding” may not be as harmful as claimed by Proposition 123’s opposition, though.

“The state’s independent budgeting forecaster, the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, reports the trust is still expected to grow by about $1.2 billion over the next 10 years (the lifespan of Proposition 123’s impact on the land trust),” Palmer wrote in an email.

Abraham and Vote NO on Proposition 123 believe lawmakers are not considering the long-term impact on the land trust.

“I know that the politicians who devised this kind of realize what’s going on here,” Abraham said. “The issue is that they’re not going to be in office in 10 years to deal with it. All these guys have eight-year term limits, so in 10 years when Arizona is in another budget crisis because we don’t have enough education because our land trust has been raided, none of these guys are going to be around anymore.”

One notable person who has not taken a public stance on the subject is state schools superintendent Diane Douglas. She told reporters following her State of Education address in mid-January that the decision was up to the taxpayers.

Abraham said he finds the fact that the leader of education in the state won’t back the proposition “concerning.”

Palmer, on the other hand, looked more at how many people have backed the measure rather than the names.

“It’s more telling if you look at the size of supporters that Prop 123 has,” Palmer said. “It sailed through the legislature without any difficulties. Complete support from the business community. Complete support from the education community. So I think that says a lot more than anything else.”

Abraham knows the kind of clout he is up against with both number of supporters and money coming in and concedes he’s behind, but that won’t influence his fervor.

“At the end of the day, they have the connections,” Abraham said. “We just don’t have those type of contacts. Of course it’s a disadvantage, but it’s just part of politics. Money is a huge factor in politics these days. It is what it is.”

Despite the funding advantage, Vote Yes for Arizona is doing the nitty-gritty to make sure Proposition 123 passes May 17.

“We don’t take any vote for granted,” Palmer said. “We’re scouring the state for every vote and we’re telling everybody about the benefits of Prop 123 and obviously Prop 123 is extremely well-received by the education community and the business community. We’re not leaving any stones unturned.”