It was the year of the protests at the Arizona Capitol, but lawmakers and a professor disagree on whether the political movements that took hold this year will have a lasting effect.
Lawmakers conducted business for much of the session in front of fired-up audiences of students and teachers protesting for stricter gun laws and higher wages, respectively.
Tom Volgy, professor of political science at the University of Arizona’s School of Government and Public Policy, said the protests are “part and parcel” with what’s happening nationwide.
Volgy said while such movements are usually sparked in more Democratic states, the teacher strikes have all taken place in red states. He attributed that to what he described as a deadlock in Washington, and the increased role of special interests groups restricting public policy choices in state legislatures.
He said people are also protesting issues that have historically been neglected, such as education funding and gun control.
He said while it’s too early to tell if the trend will continue next session, such movements are hard to sustain. A better indicator of the strength of the movements is if they have any impact on the upcoming elections, he said.
“These are citizens, basically, who are making enormous personal sacrifices to try to change the course of public policy and they’re pitted against special interests that hire people full time to pressure the Legislature on the other side,” he said.
“But the real test is going to be not whether or not these people reappear next year but whether they continue the movement through November and do what democracies do, which is punish the legislators who did not pay attention to them until it was very, very late, who dismissed them, who thought this was unimportant, and put in office those people who care a lot more about these issues so that they don’t have to go back and sacrifice their personal lives to make this happen again next year.”
Beginning in early February, teenagers in white T-shirts with slogans railing against school shootings stormed the Capitol in an attempt to get the Legislature to pass what they described as common-sense gun reform laws.
Their efforts culminated with a March For Our Lives demonstration at the Capitol on March 24 that drew roughly 15,000 people. During the event, student organizers called for a ban on bump stocks, asked the Legislature to enact universal background checks, and also fund more school counselors rather than school resource officers. They also encouraged students to register to vote and become politically aware.
On April 20, the students returned to the Capitol, staging a “die-in” in which they occupied the House, Senate and the Executive Tower until late at night.
Then came the teachers.
Since early March, groups of red-clad teachers sat in the House and Senate gallery every Wednesday, met with lawmakers to discuss the state of Arizona’s public education system and protested on the Capitol lawn for better pay.
The teachers ramped up their efforts in mid-April after they voted to strike. Seventy-eight percent of the more than 57,000 educators who participated in the vote supported a walk-out.
For six days beginning on April 26, thousands of teachers and their supporters lined the Capitol lawn protesting for higher wages, among several other demands. And while not all of their demands were met, the governor signed a budget that included a 9 percent teacher raise and $100 million for district and charter additional assistance.
While last year’s efforts by Save Our Schools Arizona to collect signatures to place the voucher expansion law on the ballot showed that grassroots movements can be successful, much of their success came after the 2017 session ended. And it still remains to be seen whether voters will ultimately decide to uphold or oppose the legislation.
The teachers and students, however, proved that grassroots efforts can have a much more immediate impact.
Still, some lawmakers, like House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, think what occurred this year is just a “phenomenon.”
Mesnard said while the students and teachers protesting at the Capitol likely piqued people’s interest in politics and constituents will certainly be more engaged in the future, he doesn’t think the protests signal a trend going forward.
“I don’t think it will go away but I wouldn’t look at them as indicators of a trend. Every session there’s one or two issues that will generate attention and have people come down here,” he said.
And in the case of the teachers, Mesnard said, as long as the Legislature follows through on it’s promise to fund the 20 percent raises by 2020, then it’s unlikely lawmakers will see another protest of that magnitude next year.
Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, disagreed.
She said Democrats feel energized by what they saw at the Capitol this year and she doesn’t think it’s an isolated incident. This year’s events signal a change in Arizona politics, she said.
“I mean those things never happened in all of my time here,” she said. “My father, who had been here in the ‘80s and ‘90s, he said he never thought he’d see the day that teachers would actually come out and protest. This was huge. I think this is the beginning of a different Arizona and I’m really excited.