Gov. Doug Ducey kicked off the first “State of the State” speech of his second term Monday with a call to action for lawmakers to act quickly on a multi-state drought plan to stave off declining water levels in the Colorado River
In his joint address to members of the Legislature, Ducey outlined his legislative priorities for the year, detailing a broad agenda that includes complex water reform, repeal of legislative immunity, the return of his school safety plan to prevent gun violence in schools and calculated budget practices to boost the state’s rainy-day fund
Ducey’s 3,518 word speech, which clocked in at about 40 minutes, hit on a series of major policy issues that will define the 2019 legislative session. He also carried on the bipartisan tone he set at inauguration a week earlier.
Drought Contingency Plan
The governor’s top priority heading into the new legislative session is for Arizona to sign onto a drought plan designed to stabilize water levels in Lake Mead, which could face a water shortage as soon as 2020.
He addressed water policy first in his “State of the State” speech, which he said was to signal the importance of the issue.
“This is not an issue that leads the news,” Ducey said. “It doesn’t make for a snappy headline, or a provocative soundbite, and it can’t be explained in 280 characters. But as I traveled the state this past year, it’s one of the issues I was asked about most by real people.”
As his guests for the annual “State of the State” address, Ducey invited former Gov. Bruce Babbitt, a Democrat, and former U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, a Republican, in recognition of their previous contributions to helping craft major Arizona water policy.
With the exception of stressing the importance of bipartisanship and working together on water policy, Ducey did not specify how he aims for the Legislature to tackle the multi-state Drought Contingency Plan.
As water levels in Lake Mead drop to perilously low levels, seven Southwestern states that draw water from the river aim to implement water reductions to stabilize lake levels.
In order to get on board, Arizona must adopt the Drought Contingency Plan and implement an interstate agreement to spell out water cutbacks the state and its water users will face.
“This issue is important and it’s urgent,” Ducey said. “Our economy. Our environment. Our future. Let’s prove we can work together in a bipartisan fashion and get this done.”
If the Legislature isn’t able to pass water legislation by January 31, the federal government could step in and force harsher water cuts on the state.
Ducey previously pledged $35 million to help Arizona water users cope with the cutbacks that will come with signing onto the plan.
Ducey will bring back his school safety plan to prevent school shootings, but this year, he will attach more funding to the proposal in an attempt to convince lawmakers to pass the plan.
The governor did not specify how much money he will attach to his rebooted school safety plan — he will release his executive budget Friday — but he promised, “an even greater investment” than last year.
Ducey promised at least $14 million to fund his school safety plan last year — $11 million for school districts to hire school resource officers and $3 million for mental health counseling at schools.
When Ducey’s school safety plan is revived this year, it will include the Severe Threat Order of Protection — which would allow a judges to take guns from people considered dangerous — that rankled members of his own party last year.
Legislative Republicans were responsible for killing Ducey’s plan last year.
But Ducey urged Democrats and Republicans to see past the partisanship of gun issues this time.
“This is simply too important an issue to let partisan politics and special interests get in the way,” Ducey said. “We’ve got a responsibility to do something for our kids — and we’ve got to do it this session.”
Following up on his inaugural message that Arizona will not go on a spending spree just because the state has a hefty budget surplus, Ducey promised to boost the state’s rainy-day fund to $1 billion — its highest point ever.
The fund is currently sitting at about $460 million, which is just over 4 percent of the state’s general fund revenues. However, state law caps the rainy-day fund at 7 percent, which would be less than the $1 billion Ducey promised, and lawmakers may have to change that statute in order to pack the fund.
Budget predictions from October indicate a 7-percent contribution to the fund would amount to about $775 million, or 7 percent of the estimated $11.08 billion in baseline general fund revenue.
Ducey’s promise to build up the rainy-day fund is in line with his other budget priorities to save and not spend, despite the state having an over $1 billion in cash balance, and $200 million in longer-term structural balance.
Ducey acknowledged there will be some targeted spending in his executive budget, but also warned lawmakers not to get ahead of themselves.
“There are some targeted investments in critical areas,” he said. “But frankly, for a surplus year, this budget is pretty light reading.”
Amid calling for repeal of Arizona’s unnecessary laws, Ducey called for the Legislature to repeal legislative immunity, which he called the “most unnecessary law of them all.”
“We are a nation of laws, not men. No one — not me, nor you — is above the law,” Ducey cautioned lawmakers.
The governor urged lawmakers to pass a proposal by Rep. T.J. Shope, R- Coolidge, to refer the question of legislative immunity to the ballot — where the public will decide whether to keep the special privilege afforded to state lawmakers. Shope’s legislation hasn’t been filed yet.
Because legislative immunity is rooted in the Arizona Constitution, neither Ducey nor the Legislature can repeal it, but the Legislature can refer the issue to the 2020 ballot.
Lawmakers clapped intermittently during Ducey’s speech, but the applause was patchy when Ducey issued his directive on legislative immunity.
Ducey first called for an end to legislative immunity after Rep. Paul Mosley claimed “legislative immunity” during a traffic stop where he was pulled over going more than 40 miles per hour over the speed limit.
When Rep. David Cook, R-Globe, was arrested last month on suspicion of extreme drunken driving, he didn’t claim legislative immunity, but he did flash his House ID instead of his driver’s license when he was asked for identification.
Ducey pledged to continue delivering on the pay raises he promised teachers last year and warned lawmakers not to stand in his way.
But Ducey didn’t stop there on education issues. He promised additional support for career and technical education, additional funding for the Arizona Teachers Academy and expressed subtle openness to charter school reform.
Without offering specifics, Ducey promised to devote additional funds to the teachers academy, which offers some teaching students free tuition if they agree to teach in-state after graduation.
He also characterized career and technical as a priority for the year.
Ducey called Arizona “a leader” on school choice. But as calls for greater financial oversight on charter schools grow louder, Ducey seemed open to greater transparency measures in all forms of public education.
“More transparency, more accountability, and granting more financial review and oversight over taxpayer dollars — all with the purpose of making sure every public school is improving and providing Arizona kids with the best-possible education,” Ducey said.
Just hours before Ducey delivered his “State of the State” address, House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma, anticipated an agenda her party could largely get behind.
“To be frank, many if not most, of his broader goals will sound like music to our ears,” she told the crowd. “We all want what’s best for Arizona. The key is how we get there.”
But Fernandez was not especially impressed with what she actually heard from the governor.
“I didn’t realize it would be such fluff,” she told the Arizona Capitol Times after Ducey’s speech. “It wasn’t too much substance. I wanted to hear legislation that we could work together on.”
She said she had really wanted to hear Ducey specifically talk about charter school accountability and transparency, funding for public schools, “something we could grasp onto.”
What she did hear specifics on was not reassuring.
Ducey’s proposal to bring the state’s rainy day fund to $1 billion is simply too much, she said. Lawmakers should be thinking about the future and preparing for another economic downturn, she said, but she does not agree with shoring up so much right away.
Instead, she would like to see some of that money go toward school facilities and maintenance, which she said would also get people back to work.
Still, her caucus is ready to work with the governor — and he’ll need their votes, she said.
Staff writer Katie Campbell contributed to this report.