AZ Supreme Court Rules Prop 208 Unconstitutional For Lack of Spending Cap, Remands To Lower Court

By Corinne Murdock

On Thursday, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that Proposition 208 (Prop 208), the voter-approved increase on income taxes to fund public education, was unconstitutional and remanded to lower court. If that trial court determines that Prop 208 exceeds the constitutional spending limit, then Prop 208 would be killed. Chief Justice Brutinel authored the opinion.

The case, Fann, et al. v. State of Arizona, et al., challenged one major provision of Prop 208 and the circumstances of its approval.

First, the case questioned how Prop 208 exempted itself from the Arizona Constitution’s provisions on tax revenue spending caps, or the Education Expenditure Clause.

Brutinel ruled this aspect of Prop 208 unconstitutional. The chief justice made sure to note that this ruling rendered the other aspects of Prop 208 unworkable and unseverable. Meaning, no part of Prop 208 is enforceable if the trial court concurs with the Arizona Supreme Court’s opinion.

“We hold that the direct funding provision does not fall within the constitutional definition of grants in article 9, section 21 of the Arizona Constitution, and Prop. 208 is therefore unconstitutional to the extent it mandates expending tax revenues in violation of the Education Expenditure Clause,” wrote Brutinel. “Likewise, the remaining non-revenue related provisions of Prop. 208 are not separately workable and thus not severable.”

Second, the case challenged tax impositions made by voter initiative. The plaintiffs cited the Arizona Constitution’s Tax Enactment Clause, which stipulates that tax changes must be approved through a two-thirds vote by the state legislature.

The court disagreed with this assessment.

“Additionally, we hold that Prop. 208 does not violate article 9, section 22 of the Arizona Constitution (‘Tax Enactment Clause’), because that clause does not apply to voter initiatives,” wrote Brutinel. “Therefore, the bicameralism, presentment, and supermajority requirements found therein are inapplicable to Prop. 208.”

The Goldwater Institute, Snell & Wilmer, and Greenberg Traurig filed the lawsuit on behalf of the 11 plaintiffs: State Senate President Karen Fann (R-Prescott); State Senators David Gowan (R-Sierra Vista) and Vince Leach (R-Tucson); Arizona House Speaker Russell Bowers (R-Mesa); State Representatives Regina Cobb (R-Kingman), John Kavanaugh (R-Fountain Hills), Steve Pierce (R-Prescott); Montie Lee of Lee Farms; Dr. Francis Surdakowski; NO on 208; and Arizona Free Enterprise Club.

In a statement, Goldwater Institute Vice President for Litigation Timothy Sandefur classified the ruling as a win.

“Today represents a major victory for the hardworking taxpayers of Arizona,” said Sandefur. “The justices made clear that the state constitution’s limits on spending—which were added to the Constitution by the voters themselves—cannot be simply ignored, as Prop. 208’s funders attempted.”

Governor Doug Ducey concurred that this ruling signaled that the end was near for Prop 208.

“There is a clear legal path to Prop 208 being knocked down entirely, it’s only a matter of time,” tweeted Ducey. “The out-of-state proponents of this measure drafted bad language, and now they are paying the price.”

Proposition 208 (Prop 208) tacked on 3.5 percent to the existing 4.5 percent income tax for individuals making over $250,000 or couples making over $500,000. Previously, Arizona’s income tax rate was capped at 4.5 percent for individual incomes above $159,000 or joint incomes above $318,000. The revenue from the income tax increase would fund a wide variety of educator salaries and programs.

About 52 percent of Arizonans voted in favor of Prop 208 last November, and about 48 percent voted against it.

Corinne Murdock is a reporter for AZ Free News. Follow her latest on Twitter, or email tips to corinne@azfreenews.com.