Gov. Doug Ducey has faced difficult legislative sessions before.
He has handled tight budgets, contentious issues and a slew of criticism from legislative Democrats.
But this session was on another level.
The “Red for Ed” movement and corresponding teachers strike that closed schools across the state were new for Ducey. As was working to ink a budget deal as tens of thousands of angry, crimson-clad educators protested outside his office.
For Ducey, this session — the final one in this term — was a wild, new lesson on governing.
This session was far less predictable than those prior, said lobbyist Chuck Coughlin.
Education issues took over the discussion and completely dominated the later half of the session.
But that education fight has been quietly festering for years, since Ducey took office in 2015 and proceeded to cut nearly half a billion from existing programs in order to right the financial ship, Coughlin said.
The fight for more K-12 education funding has been percolating ever since, until it spilled out into the public this year as a result of national momentum and Ducey being up for re-election this fall, he said
“It was all a prelude to this dance here,” Coughlin said. “It was a boiling point.”
Even though some of Ducey’s priorities — like school safety and water policy reform — fell to the wayside as he focused on the teacher pay issue, necessitated by the horde of teachers on the Capitol lawn, the governor considers this to have been a successful session.
He brokered a budget deal with the Legislature to boost Arizona’s average teacher pay by 19 percent over the next three years.
“Of course these dollars are there to reward our teachers. They’re also there to retain our teachers and to bring new teachers into K-12 education,” Ducey said after session. “We’re excited we were able to get it over the finish line.”
Not everyone is as excited about the pay raises as the state’s top executive. “Red for Ed” leaders and the teachers camped out in front of the Capitol criticized Ducey’s plan as not going far enough.
And Ducey’s teacher pay plan was enough to convince former Secretary of State Ken Bennett to jump into the governor’s race, potentially giving the governor an intraparty challenge. Bennett has called Ducey’s plan fiscally irresponsible.
Even at the beginning of session, Ducey planned to boost K-12 funding this year. In his January “State of the State” speech, Ducey promised to boost K-12 funding and direct 80 percent of new funding toward public education, but that funding boost only initially included a 1-percent raise for teachers.
Arizona teachers demanded more. After weeks of demonstrations around the state, Ducey partially delivered.
But before he could, he received some negative feedback from his predecessor Gov. Jan Brewer, which was unusual in and of itself. As teachers marched on the Capitol, Brewer took aim at Ducey for creating the situation.
In a TV interview, she acknowledged that it is unusual for a former governor — one of Ducey’s own party no less — to criticize the sitting governor. Normally Brewer is a “good former governor” and keeps her mouth shut, she joked. But the teachers strike was too much for her to keep quiet.
The former governor said the days-long “Red for Ed” rally was totally out of control, putting some of the blame on Ducey. She doubted Ducey’s plan for pay raises would pass, and she called the Senate’s choice to adjourn on the first day of the teacher walkout a “slap in the face” to the governor as he worked to iron out a budget deal.
Ducey faced a few other bumps throughout session, but none as prominent as the “Red for Ed” strike.
In March, a pedestrian was killed by a self-driving Uber vehicle. Ducey has long championed autonomous vehicle research, but some blamed the governor for the pedestrian death because he has welcomed the emerging technology to the state with little-to-no oversight.
Ducey suspended Uber’s autonomous vehicle testing, after the technology company had already done so, pending the results of an investigation into the incident.
A federal judge ruled against Proposition 123 — a funding package pushed by Ducey that boosted school funding disbursements from the state land trust. The issue is still wrapped up in court.
In offering teachers larger raises, Ducey had to limit some of his other priorities this session. Among others, he had to pare back a proposed increase in a tax exemption for veterans.
But after a tough session, things could be looking up for Ducey as he heads into election season.
“To his credit, he can claim the mantle of education governor now,” Coughlin said. “People can critique it, and they will.
“I think he can run on that in this state, and he will run on that and be successful.”