- Associated Press - Thursday, October 8, 2015

PHOENIX (AP) - The Arizona Court of Appeals is blocking schools from collecting hundreds of millions of dollars a trial court ordered the Legislature to pay while it considers an appeal.

The order announced Thursday comes as Gov. Doug Ducey has become engaged in settlement discussions between lawmakers and schools over the 2014 ruling that the Legislature must immediately pay $331 million schools didn’t get in required yearly inflation boosts. That ruling came after the Arizona Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers violated the state Constitution by not giving annual increases starting in 2009.

Senate President Andy Biggs hailed the stay order as an indication that the court understands settlement talks are ongoing and said it also shows the case is far from over. “While the plaintiffs continue to argue that the case is long resolved, this week’s stay is one more truth that the issue is not resolved, and is in fact continuing to work its way through the courts,” he said in a statement.

Seven months of court-ordered mediation led by appeals court judges failed in August. The governor’s staff has met with both sides in recent weeks as they discussed settlement options.

The Republican governor called for the two sides to settle after he took office in January. In June, he rolled out a plan to tap the state’s permanent land trust fund to funnel more than $2.2 billion in extra money to schools over 10 years. That effort will require voter approval but avoid a tax increase that is a non-starter for Ducey and Republicans who control the Legislature.

“The governor is committed to resolving the lawsuit and getting more money into our schools, and getting the land trust dollars moving sooner rather than later,” said his spokesman, Daniel Scarpinato. “So we are talking with legislative leadership and the education community.”

Republican lawmakers have a competing plan that taps lesser amounts from the land trust, adds general fund cash, cuts required inflation increases and uses money from the state’s early childhood education program. All but the use of general fund cash requires voter approval.

Don Peters, a lawyer representing the schools that sued, said the appeals court order just prevents them from seeking an order requiring the Legislature to pay up while an appeal is ongoing. Opening briefs in the state’s appeal are due Monday, and oral arguments could be scheduled in several months.

The lower court ordered the state to pay $331 million this year followed by increasing amounts in future years. Schools also want back payments that could equal about $1.3 billion. A ruling on that part of the lawsuit was put on hold when the sides went into mediation talks in January..

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