Will it be Progress or Treason? The Morning after Prop. 204

Prop 204 3

On November 7, Tucson residents will go to the polls to vote for City Council members in Wards 3, 5, and 6. They will also cast ballots on several propositions, including Proposition 204, aka “Strong Start Tucson.” If it passes, Prop. 204 will increase the Tucson city sales tax by one half-cent and generate an estimated $50 million a year to pay for as many as 8,000 children to attend high-quality preschool. If the proposition fails, we must closely examine what our elected Democratic leadership does next. Will they act in the name of progress, or will they choose inaction and thereby betray the values they claim to defend?

Increased funding for early childhood education is a Democratic Party no-brainer, but several Democratic state legislators, the Mayor of Tucson, and all of our City Council members (minus Ward 3’s Karen Uhlich, who isn’t running for re-election) have joined forces with Jim Click and the Koch Brothers to push for Prop. 204’s defeat. Mr. Click is particularly opposed to Strong Start Tucson; he has spent more than $80,000 spearheading the “No on Prop. 204” campaign. The reasons for this strange alliance can be divided between the nefarious and the virtuous, which will only become visible if Prop. 204 fails.

Prop. 101 vs Prop. 204:
How many police cars equal one preschool?

Exactly how and why the Koch brothers, Jim Click, and the majority of Southern Arizona’s elected Democratic officials teamed up to oppose increased funding for early childhood education is a question the local media has been surprisingly incurious about. However this coalition is extraordinary, and perhaps unprecedented. One possible explanation would, if true, confirm our worst suspicions about politics as mud-bathing and mutual back-scratching, and expose these officials as deeply duplicitous.

On May 16, 2017, 61% of Tucson city voters passed Proposition 101, a five year, 0.5% increase in the city sales tax to pay for road improvements and for new and upgraded fire and police equipment. Prop. 101 was endorsed and actively supported by our Democratic Mayor and City Council. It was also endorsed by the Tucson Metro Chamber of Commerce, and unopposed by millionaire Republican financier Jim Click – neither of whom generally favors any kind of tax increase, for any reason. If Strong Start Tucson fails at the ballot box, it may be in part because the Mayor and City Council made a deal with Mr. Click and the Chamber; Democratic leaders would oppose Prop. 204, if the conservative business community didn’t oppose Prop. 101.

Let us pause here for a moment in defense of pragmatism and good, honest government. Politics involves compromise, and more compromise, and not scuttling the practical good in order to achieve the impossible perfect. If the Mayor and City Council sincerely believed that it would be in Tucson’s best interests to trade Prop. 204 for Prop. 101, that may well have been a rational, utilitarian calculation. However the Democratic Party forces that are passionately denouncing Strong Start Tucson have never made this argument, and our elected officials have studiously avoided it. As politics is not a nursery, so too voters are not nurslings. If our elected officials believe we need to prioritize police and fire and roads over schools, they should come out and say so. Of course if voters disagree it might cost them their next election, but that is precisely how democracy is supposed to work. If our leaders value their jobs more than they value our fully informed consent, then they forfeit all right to call themselves Democrats. Or democrats.

Hopefully the scurrilous allegation that our elected officials sold our children to Jim Click in exchange for a few roads and police cars is false. Thankfully we have a unique opportunity to find out. If Strong Start Tucson fails on November 7, we will see what kind of Democrats really lead Southern Arizona. If they are true to their word, in 2018 they will propose the most progressive Democratic public education agenda in recent history.

Will Democrats be democrats?

I am a big supporter of Strong Start Tucson, and I know there are genuine, well-meaning arguments for and against its passage. I will not rehash them all here; The Arizona Daily Star, the Tucson Sentinel, and The Tucson Weekly have all printed multiple, detailed pro- and anti-Prop. 204 pieces. However for the sake of this argument some of the opposition’s points bear repeating:

  • Prop. 204 only funds early education for approximately 8,000 children, and therefore unjustly excludes tens of thousands of Tucson kids.
  • It will only fund Tucson schools, and therefore unjustly excludes tens of thousands of Pima County kids.
  • The state legislature has been chronically under funding Arizona schools for a very long time. They broke our education system, so they and not the city should be the ones who fix it.
  • Funding school expansion with sales tax revenue is regressive. Schools should be funded with far more equitable property and / or income tax increases.

If these arguments, which have been advanced by our Southern Arizona Democratic leadership, reflect a genuine concern for implementing a better early education system than the one Prop. 204 advances, then our Democratic leaders will wake up the day after Prop. 204’s defeat and push hard for well-funded, progressive educational policy at the city, county, and state levels. If our City Council has genuine policy objections to Prop. 204, and its opposition is not rooted in a cold-blooded political calculation that favors police cars over school buses, then the Council’s 2018 education agenda will be one for the record books. If the lack of early childhood education is the fault of the denizens of the state capitol, then come January our Democratic legislative caucus will introduce bills to institute state-wide, income tax-funded pre-kindergarten for all Arizona children. If funding schools with a sales tax hike is regressive, then our party will insist that our Democratic elected officials use legislative sessions to openly advocate for raising property and income tax dollars for schools.

Let us give our elected officials the benefit of the doubt, and assume they are not lying to our faces when they say they oppose Prop. 204 because it isn’t in the best interests of our children. Let us assume they are sincerely interested in funding pre-k for all Southern Arizona children. Finally, let us presume that our leaders are innocent until proven guilty of selling their ideals and our children’s future to Jim Click and the Koch brothers for the price of some roads and police cars.

At the same time, let us not forget our leaders’ insistence that, “Education is the key to success but Prop. 204 is not the right answer.” Come 2018, if Prop. 204 fails then all local Democrats should look forward to our City Council and state legislative caucus telling us precisely what the right answer is. If they do not, if the sound of education reform in city hall and the state capitol is the deafening sound of silence…Well, at least we know the value our elected officials place on telling us the truth, and bettering our children’s futures. We will know that, to them, our families and our democracy are worth a whole lot less than the price of a police car.

– Joel Feinman