In his State of the State speech January 14, Gov. Doug Ducey said a lot, spending nearly 40 minutes highlighting his policy priorities and wish-list for the legislative session.
But perhaps just as important is what Ducey left unsaid in his speech.
The governor notably avoided talking about a series of major issues the Legislature will tackle this session, including tax conformity and charter school and criminal justice reform.
And while Ducey stressed the need for adhering to promised pay raises for teachers, he made no mention of pay raises for other state employees, despite more than a dozen state agencies including pay hikes for their employees in their budget requests.
The governor’s omissions indicate what legislative issues may not get Ducey’s seal of approval and coveted signature this year.
Who was left out of his speech also caught the attention of freshman Rep. Myron Tsosie, D-Chinle.
After the governor’s address, Tsosie tweeted to point out Ducey made no mention of the state’s tribal nations — a particularly surprising slight to Tsosie at a time when the governor is seeking unity on water, an issue the tribes are watching closely.
“What are his plans? What do we need to do? How do we as tribal nations help?” Tsosie said. “How can we be more involved?”
Tsosie’s constituents want answers to those questions and more. But he’ll return home for the weekend tasked with explaining why they were left out instead.
Ducey can’t be expected to address everything under the sun in his annual speech and still finish within a reasonable amount of time. But here are four major issues that the governor glossed over in his address to the Legislature.
Ducey hinted at charter school reform in his State of the State remarks when he praised Arizona’s school choice options, but the governor shied away from actually uttering the words “charter schools.”
Public education advocates, many of whom have called for charter school reform for years, have become more vocal in their calls for change after Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, made nearly $14 million off the sale of his chain of charter schools.
And those pushing for additional oversight of state charter schools and increasing transparency of the schools are dismayed at Ducey’s tepid response to growing calls for change.
House Minority Leader Charlene Fernandez feigned concern at Ducey’s inability to talk directly about charter school reform earlier this week. Her comments made in a rebuttal to Ducey’s State of the State speech, included a reference to the millions Farnsworth made on the sale of his Benjamin Franklin charter company.
“We know that we need to roll back some laws to make sure that lawmakers don’t walk away with millions of dollars that are taxpayer dollars that could go to our public schools so I’m willing to work with Governor Ducey and help him utter the words ‘charter school reform,’” she said.
After Sen. Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, indicated she was working on legislation to increase the oversight of owners and operators of charter schools, Ducey said he is open to the idea of reform, but has yet to specify to what extent.
Attorney General Mark Brnovich is also pursuing additional transparency measures for charters by pushing to reinstate the ability of the Auditor General’s Office to audit charter finance operations.
Criminal justice reform
Ducey has pushed programs to reduce recidivism rates for years and this year is no exception.
But other lawmakers and advocates are pushing for other criminal justice reform measures that got nary a mention in Ducey’s speech.
A Tucson-based group is looking to upend Arizona’s truth-in-sentencing laws, which requires Arizona inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their court-imposed sentences.
Some lawmakers are also exploring the idea of pushing expungement legislation that would allow nonviolent felons to expunge their records after a certain period of time. Law enforcement groups would still be able to see prior convictions, but that information would be shielded when a person applies for housing or a job.
Decriminalization of marijuana is also on the wish list for criminal justice reform advocates and a bipartisan group of lawmakers. Ducey strongly opposes marijuana legalization.
But Ducey made no mention of those criminal justice reforms in his speech.
He talked about visiting a state prison in Buckeye with members of the Arizona Cardinals last year, using it to lead into calls for expanded efforts to reduce recidivism rates and help former prisoners re-enter society.
Ducey also shied away from supporting broader criminal justice reforms in an interview with the Arizona Capitol Times
If Ducey’s State of the State speech is any indication, advocates pushing a strong criminal justice reform agenda may face an uphill battle this year.
Pay raises for non-teachers
State employees haven’t received across-the-board pay raises in a decade, but Ducey made no mention in his speech of granting state workers pay raises this year.
That’s not to say he won’t grant pay raises to targeted groups of employees, but his pay raise priority lies with continuing to carry out the teacher pay raises he promised last year.
At least 16 state agencies included employee pay bumps in their budget requests. That’s not unusual. But the requests this year come on heels of Ducey promising 20-percent pay raises spread out over three years to Arizona teachers.
No doubt some state employees are hopeful Ducey may be generous with them as he was with the teachers.
The Governor’s Office previously indicated widespread pay raises are unlikely. Instead, Ducey is looking at “targeted” pay raises for certain employees, with some of the focus on public safety personnel.
It comes as no surprise that Ducey has been at odds with some GOP lawmakers on conforming Arizona’s tax code to changes enacted in federal law.
Conformity likely plays a role in Ducey’s plan to boost the state’s rainy day fund to a historic $1 billion, which he announced in his State of the State address. Ducey didn’t get into details of how he will boost the reserve fund in his speech, but he previously said he wants to conform and direct upwards of $170 million from the tax changes to the rainy day fund. Ducey was scheduled to present his budget proposal January 18 after this story went to press.
Some legislative Republicans have other ideas. Former House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, now a senator, has been pushing for the state to return that money to Arizona taxpayers.
If the state does not return that money, current Speaker Rusty Bowers said many Republican legislators will consider that a de facto tax increase.
“We’re not voting to raise taxes, but we’re not voting to lower them,” he said.
Ducey may have glossed over conformity in his annual address to the Legislature because it’s not a riveting issue. But it could also hint at his plans to move forward with conforming and boosting the state’s rainy day fund, regardless of what some Republican lawmakers are pushing.
The governor has already moved to steamroll the Legislature on the issue. The Department of Revenue already started printing tax forms that presume the Legislature will approve Ducey’s plan to conform.
In his speech, Ducey foreshadowed clashes with his own party when he called on Republican legislative leaders to support him later in the session.
“I’m hoping today’s not the last day you’ll have my back,” he said, referring to Bowers and Senate President Karen Fann.