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Will Arizona kill school sports — and itself?

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Arizona’s developing quite a reputation for being a state by and for scaredy-cat old white people feeling the hot breath of becoming the minority (which the Census Bureau expects will happen by 2015). The infamous SB1070, another law banning the teaching of ethnic studies, and  a bill coming through that would make schools count illegals and tally up their “cost” — I guess that’s what happens when a real estate market collapses, and white people can no longer sell their houses to flee, um, whatever they call those who are not white people.

It didn’t take a Sarah Palin-assailed girls high school basketball boycott for the state to set up a “hey-weren’t-not-so-bad-commission” to burnish its image as something more than Crazy Coot Cracker Central. It took multiple boycotts by multiple organizations.

Even with all that, the worst hit to Arizona’s image may be yet to come. That will happen if the state’s voters on May 18 turn down Proposition 100, which adds another percentage point to the Arizona sales tax, with most of the money going to schools, as well as health care, and police and fire services. It won’t be interpreted nationwide as an attack on illegal immigrants only. It’ll be interpreted a sign Arizona is closing up shop to pretty much everybody except scared old white people — and even they’re going to be hit if the day comes that budget cuts make an ambulance a lot slower in coming.

How do I know this? Because the of the list of supporters. Among them: pretty much every state and local division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Arizona Education Association, the Professional Fire Fighters Association, the Gila River Indian Community, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, the Arizona Medical Association, US Airways and the Arizona Cardinals. Basically, a mishmosh of large and powerful and not-so-large and not-so-powerful that rarely stand on the same side of the same issue. Oh, and also the majority of Arizona state House and Senate, and Gov. Jan Brewer, who had to approve of the ballot measure.

Their fear is this: if Prop 100 — which would raise taxes only through 2013, when the provision sunsets — doesn’t pass, the state immediately cuts $900 million from a state budget already collapsing from a housing and tourism bust, including $450 million in cuts from education. This isn’t a threat or a hypothetical. The Arizona state legislature already has a contingency budget passed in case the tax increase is rejected. (The Cardinals also might feel a little guilty for youth sports funding being slashed because tax revenue generated around its new stadium wasn’t up to par.)

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And more than the budget cut is the signal the rejection sends: that the old white people of Arizona are dying, and they’re taking the state with them. Even for business types who get a cold sweat at every mention of a tax, such a loud and public signal of disinvestment in education, public safety and health (the beneficiaries of the tax increase) would let the world know Arizona isn’t willing to step up to invest in its future. I know every state is cutting, and the backers know every state is cutting. But they also know that at least the signal needs to be sent that they feel a little bad about it.

So what does this have to do with youth sports? Plenty. Many Arizona schools already have certain sports, particularly nonrevenue sports and programs for those who are not on the high school varsity — at the ready to get chopped by their budgetary guillotines. From MaxPreps.com:

“If it fails, the announcement has come from our district office that the possibility of eliminating athletics across the board in our district is real,” said Herman House, director of interscholatics for the Tucson Unified School District. House doesn’t think it will come to that. He believes revenue-producing varsity sports such as football, basketball, baseball and softball will survive, but the reality is, if Prop. 100 fails, Tucson will have to shave about $45 million from its annual budget.

“Athletic directors are a resilient bunch and we always seem to find a way,” said Mesa district athletic director Steve Hogen, whose district is the largest in the state. “At the same time, there are fiscal realities you can’t ignore. Sometimes, that has bad consequences for the kids.”

Hogen said Mesa was already discussing a pay-for-play fee for all student-athletes. But if Prop. 100 does not pass, that fee will likely rise by 50 percent, putting a hardship on a district with many lower-income families. House said if Proposition 100 fails, his district is also considering restrictions on travel and a reliance upon fundraisers to pay coaches’ salaries and keep sports self-sufficient.

Not to mention, a Prop 100 passage might speed up or intensify a plan by Arizona’s state high school sports authority to cut athletic divisions and tournaments, and set limits on travel, all in the name of saving money.

If Arizona wants a preview of how this would work, it can look at New Jersey, where school districts across the state are slashing sports — and, of course, lots of other, more curricular parts of education — when locals rejected higher school taxes on top of state budget cuts. Or just about anywhere else nationwide, really. Having your funding tied in a big way to property taxes and state government receipts is great when housing prices are flying upward, not so when they’re crashing. Just go to Google News and search “school sports budget cuts,” and you’ll get the feeling in many places this recession means the end of days for school-sponsored sports.

Or look at the past coverage of tax rejections at the Grove City Schools in Ohio, which became national news precisely because the district eliminated sports entirely as a result — but were brought back when voters finally passed a hike. Maybe you don’t notice when the math department cuts a teacher, but everyone notices when the football team isn’t playing on Fridays.

So why does Arizona get the pressure of having its image tarnished by rejecting an education tax hike? Well, there’s the matter of all the other legislative nuttiness in the state. But there’s also the matter of Arizona’s taxes being relatively low to start with. The sales tax hike would go to 6.6 percent. Not bad at all, especially to someone such as myself in Chicago, where the sales tax can go more than 11 percent. That’s not to say Arizonans deserve to get soaked as much as I do. It’s more like the feeling I have when I would hear my parents in Carmel, Ind., carp about their property taxes, and I’d find out they were paying about one-quarter as much for a house that wasn’t worth that much less than mine. It’s just hard to work up sympathy. And least New Jersey’s rejections were understandable, with the state’s extremely-high-in-the-nation property taxes.

However, the main issue is that Arizona’s populace knows exactly what it will get if the tax doesn’t pass. The gun is loaded and at your head — and yet you might still decide to pull the trigger.

If most polls are to believed, about half of the state’s voters are suicidal, with passage of Prop 100 as a tossup. While the supporters are well-funded, the opponents have some politicians on their side, as well as the always more popular stance of not raising taxes.

Maybe what supporters need more than money is 7-year-old Logan Wade. He is the young fan Glendale (Ariz.) City Council member Phil Lieberman credits with convincing him to join the majority vote May 11 for a $25 million guarantee for the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes, which play in a taxpayer-funded arena in a taxpayer-financed entertainment district that threatens to go down the tubes if the Coyotes, as is very possible, move back to their ancestral of Winnipeg. This vote, which would come if the NHL-owned, bankrupt team can’t find a buyer, comes despite the city budget deficit of $15 million. But how can you turn down a little kid? From the Arizona Republic:

Councilman Phil Lieberman, who had asked tough questions of staffers, said he was persuaded by Logan Wade, a 7-year-old fan.

“‘Will you vote for this resolution tonight?’” Lieberman said the Glendale boy asked.

“I can’t turn him down,” the councilman added.

What Prop 100 supporters should do is spend their money on jetting Logan Wade around the state on the May 18 election day, and have him wear a jersey for a local high school, asking voters, “Will you vote for Prop 100 today?” Even scared old white people can’t turn him down!

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