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Teachers argue for tax cut windfall to finance pay raises

Posted at 12:54 PM, Mar 06, 2018
and last updated 2018-03-07 21:17:00-05

It would take $170 million a year to give Arizona teachers the same 5 percent pay increase West Virginia lawmakers just gave their teachers, and they say there is a new-found pot of cash that would provide about that amount.

The federal tax cut law signed by President Donald Trump in December is expected to boost tax revenue for Arizona by at least $130 million in the coming budget year and possibly as much as $250 million, according to Legislature's budget analysts and the state Department of Revenue.

But Republican lawmakers aren't proposing to use the money to boost teacher pay -- they see it as a tax increase and instead want cuts.

Teachers across the state Wednesday protested what is one of the lowest pay rates in the country, wearing red in a mass showing of support and posted a host of photos on social media.

Noah Karvelis, a music teacher in Tolleson, said Republican leaders' plan to use the windfall for tax cuts make no sense because teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation.

"You have money, and you an issue on your hands, you have a legitimate crisis on your hands right now, use that money for that," Karvelis said. He said turnout at his school for the day of protest was amazing.

"As far I'm aware unless somebody was hiding out in a room or something afraid to show their face, we had 100 percent participation," Karvelis said. "Nobody was out of the loop. Nurses, custodial staff, bus drivers, they all showed up in red today."

He said it appeared by social media posts that the effort was huge across the state, and the Arizona Educators United Facebook group was nearing 21,000 members Wednesday -- just four days after it was created.

The effort came a day after West Virginia teachers ended a nine-day strike after that state's lawmakers voted for the 5 percent pay boost. That state's teachers are paid more than Arizona's when adjusted for cost of living.

Republicans in the Legislature point to Republican Gov. Doug Ducey's proposal to boost assistance to school districts by $100 million in the next state budget and a planned 1 percent increase in teacher pay as signs of progress.

"What the governor is proposing is restoring additional assistance over the next few years," House Speaker J.D. Mesnard said Wednesday.

Mesnard defended his push to cut what is seen as a tax windfall when the state conforms its tax code to the new federal tax code. The state does that yearly to ensure a simplified tax system.

"It is the act of conforming that maintains simplicity but also in this case causes a massive tax increase," he said.

Teachers say they aren't considering a strike in Arizona, although the grassroots group called Arizona Teachers United that organized Wednesday's protest isn't completely taking it off the table.

Senate President Steve Yarbrough believes a strike is "improbable."

"That is an extraordinarily important career, and to walk off the job to the detriment of kids strikes me, pardon the pun, as something that Arizona teachers are too honorable to do," he said. "I just don't believe that's going to happen."

The issues in Arizona are also quite different than West Virginia, because the state sets teacher salaries in West Virginia and in Arizona school districts make that decision. There are about 54,000 public school teachers in the state.

Also, an Arizona attorney general opinion from 1971 said that a statewide teacher strike would be illegal under common law and participants could lose their teaching credentials.

According to figures compiled by the National Education Association, the average Arizona teacher earned slightly more than $47,000 in 2016, the seventh lowest in the nation. Adjusted for local cost of living, federal figures show elementary teachers actually rank 50th in earnings and high school teachers 49th.