Photo by Howard Fischer, for the Courier.
PHOENIX — He’s developed a reputation as sort of a thorn in the side of state officials.
But that doesn’t bother Tim Hogan, who after 26 years is leaving as the executive director of the Arizona Center for Law in the Public Interest.
“I guess I look at it in terms of the role of this organization as much as anything else,” he said.
“And if I happen to be a thorn in the side, it’s representative of what this organization should be,” Hogan explained. “That’s kind of being a watchdog on government and making sure they’re following the law — and taking action when they don’t.”
Hogan is now stepping aside, hoping to be without a formal job for at least a little while. But he’s not retiring. And Hogan said he’s going to remain available to help out with the latest lawsuit he’s filed launched along with education officials challenging how the state does —and does not — finance school construction and repair.
In an interview with Capitol Media Services, Hogan said he’s probably most proud of what he was able to achieve in alterations to school funding.
Prior to 1994, each school district was responsible for it’s own capital funding and repairs. Put simply, if a new building was needed, board members went to local taxpayers to borrow the money.
The problem with that, as Hogan saw it, is that all school districts are not created equally.
Some are “property rich,” with lots of taxable industrial and commercial property. So each penny added to the tax rate generates more than what would be found in a “property poor” district.
Or as Supreme Court Justice Frederick Martone noted in ruling for the poor districts Hogan represented, the Roosevelt Elementary School District in South Phoenix had to impose a combined tax rate of $4.37 per $100 of assessed valuation to build, maintain and operate the schools; the Ruth Fisher Elementary School District, where the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station is located, has a tax rate of just 11 cents per $100.
Looking at it another way, if a poor district needs to raise $3 million for a new school, the necessary tax hike is much greater than in a rich district.
All that, the high court concluded, violated the state constitutional requirement for a “general and uniform” school system. More to the point, the justices said that there are certain minimum requirements to ensure children have access to education — and the state is responsible for funding them.
The ruling dropped a financial bomb of sorts into the lap of Gov. Fife Symington who had the initial task of dealing with the ruling. He not only disputed the ruling at the time but continued to fight efforts to provide more funds.
“I disagreed with him on most major issues,” Symington told Capitol Media Services this past week when asked about Hogan and the legal fight.
But Symington said he also recognized that Hogan has not been just some gadfly.
“He was really quite a force,” the former governor said.
“He was a really important guy you could not ignore,” Symington said. “I always admired him as a professional.”
And now, with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight — and no longer responsible for having to come up with the cash — Symington conceded that the series of rulings Hogan got the high court to approve on school finance were probably ultimately right.
“There had to be some ways to balance out the disparities,” he said, saying Hogan “used the law to achieve benefits for public education.”
That, however, worked only for a while. Now, Hogan is now working with attorneys from education groups on the very same issue, arguing that the capital construction and repair spending funding plans approved by current Gov. Doug Ducey are just as illegal as the ones the state’s high court voided decades ago.
No date has been set for a hearing. But Hogan said the new lawsuit, filed earlier this year, fits squarely within the pattern he set for the organization years ago about when to go to court — and when not to.
“We’ve been asserting in most of these cases that what the government is doing is violating a state constitutional provision or a federal law,” he said. “Our strategy all along has been (that) challenging state statutes doesn’t get you very far if all they have to do is change the statute.”
Hogan said he hopes to remain an active participant in the latest lawsuit — based on what the Arizona Constitution requires of education funding — even once he formally steps aside.
So why leave?
Some of it is personal. Hogan, now 65, said he’s been steadily employed since he was 17.
“It’s just time to not have a job,” he said, even if he does remain involved in some litigation.
And there’s something else.
It would be one thing if being executive director meant he just got to file lawsuits and argue cases. But much of the responsibility for keeping the lights on also falls to him.
“Our budget is about a half a million,” Hogan said. He said there are the occasional foundation grants.
“But right now 80 percent of that is individual contributions,” he explained. “And that’s an aspect of this position that requires time and effort. And that’s labor intensive.”
While Hogan is best known for his work on school finance, he’s scored other significant victories.
He got courts to halt the practice of the state Land Department of using money from the trust account — money earmarked for schools and other beneficiaries — to operate the agency.
And Hogan got judges to throw a monkey wrench into plans by utility regulators to let competition versus a fair rate of return for utilities determine what consumers pay for electricity in Arizona.
That’s not to say that Hogan never loses.
He could not convince the state Court of Appeals to void a policy adopted by the Arizona Corporation Commission that utilities could count the electricity generated by burning trash to meet the mandate to generate 15 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2025.
But even when he hasn’t prevailed, Hogan and his lawsuits have made a difference.
In 2015 a federal judge finally dismissed a decades-old lawsuit challenging what parents said was the failure of the state to ensure that all children had the opportunity to learn English. Following his normal pattern, Hogan claimed the lack of funding violated federal education laws.
The courts concluded otherwise and said the state was doing all it needed to do. But Hogan does not view the multi-year case as a loss, noting the multiple changes state lawmakers made in a bid to defeat the litigation.
“We got a lot accomplished during that time,” he said.
“There’s increased funding for ‘English language learners,’” Hogan said. “There’s increased focus on their achievement and performance.”