Two red states where hundreds of thousands of teachers have rallied against dismal pay and massive public education cuts have one thing in common — their state constitutions make it really hard to raise taxes.
Arizona and Oklahoma each require a supermajority — or much more than half — of the state legislature to vote to impose new taxes or increase existing ones, as opposed to a simple majority. Conservative organizations like the American Legislative Exchange Council have long pushed for such measures nationwide in an effort to curb “excessive government spending.”
The two join 11 other states with such requirements. And while supermajorities aren’t the sole driver of education funding woes, critics argue that they lock in tax cuts year after year, making it extremely difficult for states to address education funding shortfalls.
“Everyone just knows that you’re never going to get another nickel out of the state legislature,” said Dan Hunting, a senior policy analyst at Arizona State University’s Morrison Institute for Public Policy. “I think it has just finally hit a breaking point.”
Arizona teachers on Tuesday are expected to continue their walkout for the fourth day, as they demand better pay and additional education funding.
Voters there and in Oklahoma — where teachers walked out earlier this spring — both approved supermajority requirements in 1992. It now takes two-thirds of the state legislature in Arizona to impose new taxes or increase taxes. In Oklahoma, it takes 75 percent of the state legislature — one of the strictest requirements in the nation.
The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argues that years of state tax cuts before and after the Great Recession squeezed general funds available for schools and other priorities in Arizona and Oklahoma. State funding for schools in both states hasn’t recovered since the recession and supermajority requirements make it impossible to raise revenue, CBPP says.
For example, CBPP notes that Arizona “cut personal income tax rates by 10 percent in 2006, cut corporate tax rates by 30 percent in 2011, reduced taxes on capital gains, and reduced taxes in other ways over the last couple of decades.” State education funding in Arizona is also down 14 percent since the recession hit, after adjusting for inflation.
A coalition of Arizona public school advocates led by a progressive policy group is now pushing for a ballot measure to raise income taxes on wealthy Arizonans to help pay for public education.
Progressives say supermajorities just don’t work. “This is a classic example of something that sounds good, but it’s a complete poison pill,” said Nick Johnson, senior vice president for state fiscal policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Supermajorities just reduce the power of a state to do what it needs to do.”
Johnson also said the requirements also allow conservatives to “lock-in” their “advantage into the future.”
“It’s one-sided,” he said.
But Jonathan Williams, vice president for the Center for State Fiscal Reform at the American Legislative Exchange Council, argued that supermajorities haven’t prohibited states from taking action when it comes to education funding. They’re “useful tools for states” that want to limit government and “protect taxpayers from tax increases,” he said.
Williams pointed to Arizona, where teachers are awaiting details of a plan put forth by Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who has pledged a 20 percent teacher pay boost by the year 2020, but has not disclosed how it will be financed.
Educators are skeptical of Ducey’s plan because it wouldn’t raise taxes and it doesn’t address their demand for $1 billion to make up for education funding cuts since the recession. Ducey, who’s running for reelection, made his refusal to never raise taxes a central tenet of his campaign four years ago.
Arizona state lawmakers earlier this year also voted to extend for 20 years a state sales tax that raises hundreds of millions of dollars for teacher salaries.
Williams noted that in Oklahoma, the threat of massive teacher walkouts prompted state lawmakers to pass a rare tax hike that would fund a $6,100 pay raise. It wasn’t enough, and teachers still walked out of schools, demanding more revenue. They were largely unsuccessful.
Nonetheless, legislators did act, conservatives pointed out. “When something becomes a necessity, these state lawmakers were able to hit even the most stringent of the supermajority thresholds,” Williams said.
Other states with teacher protests have passed narrower supermajority requirements.
Voters in Kentucky, for example, approved a constitutional amendment in 2000 that requires a three-fifths supermajority to raise revenue or appropriate funds in odd-numbered legislative session years, while just a simple majority is needed in even-numbered years. Kentucky teachers walked out of schools earlier this month, calling for more education funding and protesting changes to pensions.
In Colorado, where teachers rallied at the state Capitol last week, voters passed a “Taxpayer's Bill of Rights” in 1992, restricting tax hikes without voter approval. That measure, known as TABOR, was amended in 2000 after funding for public schools had deteriorated.
Not every state with teacher protests has the requirement, however. West Virginia, where teachers first sparked a statewide and national movement by walking out of schools in February, has no supermajority requirement to raise or impose new taxes.
In Florida, a proposal on the ballot in November would compel two-thirds of each state chamber to approve tax hikes. The Sunshine State now has a narrow supermajority requirement that only applies to corporate taxes.
“We should always make it much more difficult to raise taxes than it is to cut them,” Republican state House Speaker Richard Corcoran said in January. “This amendment will secure and protect that legacy from future legislatures bent on raising taxes.”