Christina Sandefur

What's So Special About the "Special Law" Ban?

Posted on October 30, 2012 | Author: Christina Sandefur
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James Madison observed that American federalism provides “a double security . . . to the rights of the people.” To this end, state constitutions are replete with provisions that lack federal counterparts. One such provision found in many state constitutions, including Arizona’s, is a ban on “special laws.”

Observing with alarm that politicians across the country were using their power to bestow favors upon select groups, the framers of Arizona’s Constitution resolved that in this state, laws would apply equally to all citizens. They wanted to ensure that the legislature could not single out a particular person, group, or locality for special favors. 

The law at issue in Friedman v. Cave Creek Unified School District, the Goldwater Institute’s latest case to be heard by the Arizona Court of Appeals, is squarely at odds with the principles that guided our framers.

In November 2000, Cave Creek voters approved a $41.6 million bond agreement specifically to build new schools, buy school buses, and improve school grounds. Ten years later, school board officials decided to spend $13 million on projects they preferred, not what voters approved. But they faced an obstacle: spending bond money on unauthorized purposes violates state law. Instead of seeking voter permission to spend the money on different projects, the district got special permission from the legislature to break its bond agreement.

The Goldwater Institute argued on behalf of taxpayers that the school district cannot spend bond money on unapproved purposes when the public had authorized that money for specific projects.  An Arizona trial court agreed, ruling that the state law giving the district permission to break its agreement is an unconstitutional special law.

At the Court of Appeals last week, the district insisted that it deserves this special benefit because Arizona’s slow economy has caused shortages in state funding for schools. But all school districts are feeling the effects of the economic downturn. Yet the law applies only to a handful of school districts—including Cave Creek—and only for a very limited time. The others (and the voters) are out of luck.

If the legislature wants to address a statewide problem, it must offer a statewide solution. In this case, the law tailor-made for the Cave Creek District embodies the very favoritism Arizona’s framers sought to eliminate when they drafted the Constitution over a century ago.

Learn more:

Goldwater Institute: Friedman v. CCUSD

Goldwater Institute: Decision Holding School District to Its Promise Has Potentially Broad Effects

Examiner: CCUSD’s Appeal in Bond Money Case Under Advisement

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