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This man holds the fate of $344 million for Arizona schools in his hands

Suddenly the legality of Prop 123 is up in the air, and Michael Pierce has a big decision to make.

Michael Pierce has to make a $344 million decision.

Arizona’s governor and our schools have a lot riding on it.

“I felt that this was the wrong way of doing the right thing,” Pierce said outside his north Phoenix home, a day after winning the first round in his lawsuit to overturn Prop 123.

Pierce is a plain-spoken Vietnam veteran and former construction worker who quotes Roman poets.

“If you wait for someone else to do what should be done, they're waiting for you and you're waiting for them and everyone waits for nothing,” Pierce said.

On his own, without a lawyer, Pierce sued Gov. Doug Ducey in Federal Court in May 2016, just two days after Arizona voters narrowly approved Prop 123.

The ballot measure will pump $3.5 billion into Arizona schools over 10 years. The cash makes up for about 75 percent of what schools were owed by the governor and Legislature.

Pierce would eventually get a pro bono lawyer, with an assist from the judge in the case.

On Monday, Federal Judge Neil Wake ruled that Pierce was right: Prop 123 was illegal. It funneled billions of dollars out of the State Land Trust Fund, set up by Congress 108 years ago, without getting Congress' approval.

"The state was repeatedly warned" before the Prop 123 vote in May 2016, the judge wrote.

State Treasurer Jeff DeWit was the leading voice issuing that warning.

With the judge’s ruling, DeWit said Tuesday, Prop 123 is a "burning, heaping pile of trash.”

“It’s a really sad situation,” he said at a news conference.

But there was a twist in the case last week, before the court ruling: The state got Congress' approval for Prop 123 -- two years after the fact.

So the judge ruled that only the first two years of Prop 123 were illegal, not future years.

Judge Wake wants to know whether Pierce will demand that the schools and state return the $344 million disbursed in Prop 123’s first two years back to the State Land Trust Fund.

He’s also asked lawyers for their arguments on whether Congress’ approval covers those first two years.

DeWit noted there’s nothing that says Congress' approval is retroactive to 2016.

Pierce said he’d prefer to settle the case with the governor and help the schools.

“The main thing is, I had my day in court and I took my stand,” he said.

“It isn't about Michael Pierce being happy. Any settlement that I would concur to has to be beneficial to the citizens of the state.”

Pierce’s bottom line: “Secure for the future real, adequate, meaningful funding for our schools.”

The governor's spokesman, Daniel Scarpinato, said the judge made a bad decision in his ruling.

The vote in Congress was done “out of an abundance of caution,” Scarpinato said, but the governor doesn’t believe it was necessary.

The judge will decide in April on future hearings in the lawsuit.

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