The bad news started when a pedestrian was struck and killed by a self-driving Uber SUV in Tempe. Some blame was directed at Gov. Doug Ducey for welcoming the technology company to test autonomous vehicles in Arizona with little-to-no oversight.
Then a federal judge overturned Proposition 123 — a funding package created by Ducey that boosted school funding disbursements from the state land trust.
Meanwhile, Arizona teachers — fueled by national momentum and frustration with Ducey and the Republican-led legislature — have become a recognizable presence at the Capitol as they lobby for a 20-percent pay bump and increased school funding.
Over the past month, Ducey’s administration has faced a series of hurdles that have challenged the governor as he works to close out the legislative session and gear up for his re-election bid.
With high-profile issues like education funding and autonomous vehicles making headlines across the country, Ducey has made national news, but not in a flattering way.
Ducey’s past few weeks have been rough, but that’s typical of a governor who is gearing up for a campaign cycle, said lobbyist Chuck Coughlin.
“He’s had two or three pretty good years,” he said. “It’s a campaign year so you would anticipate it being a bit more rocky, and more turbulent, and the issue matrix that’s presented to him right now is just that.”
Ducey is juggling several hot-button issues. Among those, he’s navigating education-funding concerns, water proposals and pushing a school safety plan that both Republican and Democratic lawmakers have criticized.
Coughlin chalked up Ducey’s struggles as standard policy challenges for a governor with well-defined policy objectives.
Oftentimes, governors coast through their fourth year and avoid major policy initiatives because they’re focused on getting re-elected, said Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato. From calling a special session to address the rampant opioid crisis to the school safety plan, Ducey laid out an ambitious policy agenda this year, he said.
“Certainly, lots of things have become politicized because it’s an election year, but one of the things people hate most is do-nothing politicians who are so risk-averse that they’re unwilling to take on big issues,” Scarpinato said. “You can’t say that about this governor.”
The national spotlight first turned to Ducey when an Uber vehicle killed a pedestrian crossing the street in Tempe — marking the first death caused by an autonomous vehicle.
There are always accidents and mistakes when testing new technologies, said lobbyist Barry Aarons.
“I don’t think the average person would blame the governor for that,” he said. “I think they would blame Uber for that.”
The accident was tragic, but Ducey handled it well and it won’t slow his enthusiasm for the industry, Aarons said.
Ducey branded Arizona as a testing ground for autonomous vehicles in 2015. Unlike California, which called for Uber’s self-driving test vehicles to be specially licensed and registered, Ducey didn’t impose regulations on the emerging industry.
After the fatal accident, Uber suspended its autonomous vehicle testing in Arizona. About a week later, Ducey suspended Uber’s autonomous vehicle testing as well, a move that will keep the company from restarting operations without the governor’s say-so.
Ducey and other state officials are doing their due diligence and scrutinizing the fatal accident so they can prevent future incidents, said former Gov. Fife Symington.
“All new technologies bring risk of some sort,” he said. “Just look at the Apollo program and the astronauts who were killed on the launchpad in Florida. We didn’t shut down the moon program because of it.”
What happened with Uber and what continues to happen with teachers across the state fighting for raises and increased school funding are manifestations of Ducey’s policies, said Zachary Smith, a regents professor of politics and international affairs at Northern Arizona University.
“As far as Prop. 123, he’s just been having a bad week,” Smith said.
In late March, a U.S. District Court judge ruled that previous money transfers under Prop. 123 were illegal because they diverted millions from the state land trust without prior authorization from Congress. Ducey had created the funding package years earlier in response to a lawsuit brought by the schools that alleged the state violated portions of a ballot measure requiring the state to annually increase its aid to schools.
The real thorn in Ducey’s side is Arizona teachers, Smith said.
Buoyed by teacher pay protests in West Virginia and Oklahoma, Arizona teachers are calling for 20 percent raises, which would cost the state around $680 million. Teachers have also called on the governor to halt tax cuts.
Ducey, who has pledged not to raise taxes, rejected teachers’ demands.
But unlike Gov. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and Gov. Jim Justice of West Virginia, Ducey is up for re-election this year.
“I think that you will see because he is up for re-election, the magnification of the microscope has increased dramatically,” Aarons said.
Ducey said last week that he sides with the teachers and that the state is trending in the right direction in terms of teacher pay.
“I’m not bragging on 43rd,” he said, citing an oft-used ranking of where Arizona falls in terms of teacher pay. “I’m just saying we’re not last.” Some studies have showed Arizona may rank as low as 49th or 50th in the nation in terms of teacher pay.
A video clip showing some of Ducey’s remarks circulated on social media, garnering more than 10,000 views and criticism from teachers.
— BrahmResnik (@brahmresnik) March 30, 2018
The governor argued the state has upped teacher pay by about 9 percent since he took office in 2015. In reality, more than half of that money went to hiring more teachers to keep up with student growth. Ducey’s figure also includes Prop. 123 funds, which were not new dollars, but money the schools were already owed.
The teacher pay issue didn’t start this year, and it’s not going to end this year, Scarpinato said. Ducey has tried to keep moving education funding up, and he will keep doing that notwithstanding what is happening in the political climate, he said.
“We anticipate that education will remain a top issue, if not the top issue, and we’re fine with that because one of the central pieces of his campaign was education,” Scarpinato said.
Lawmakers granted teachers a 1 percent pay bump for the current year and Ducey has promised teachers a 1 percent boost for the upcoming school year.
The teacher pay issue has been going on for years, Symington said. While the education movement that’s causing teacher strikes in some conservative states is unusual, the local “Red for Ed” movement is unlikely to convince lawmakers to funnel more money toward teacher pay and school funding, he said.
“Lawmakers do their best to listen to everybody, but they’re elected to make tough decisions, as is the governor,” Symington said. “They’re going to get the budget out and done ad that’ll be the end of it.”
Ultimately, Ducey’s high-profile month won’t hurt him at the polls in November, Smith said.
“It looks big now because we’re in the middle of it, but I think Ducey’s going to ride this out fine,” he said.
Campaign fundraising totals from Steve Farley and David Garcia are low, and chances are good Ducey will easily outspend the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Smith said.
Ducey will also likely play up extending the Prop. 301 education sales tax on the campaign trail, Smith said. Last month, Ducey signed a 20-year extension of the current 0.6-cent sales tax for education. Prop. 301 was set to expire in 2021 if voters or the legislature didn’t renew the tax.
“A couple of weeks ago, the governor supported and the legislature passed the extension of Prop. 301,” Aarons said. “An objective observer would have declared that to be a very positive win for him and Republicans in the legislature.”