Gov. Doug Ducey on Monday gave off his sixth State of the State address, reflecting on the last decade and calling to further his universal occupational licensing initiative, trim government and support an economy that grows with Arizona.
“As we enter a new decade, things look a lot different than when we entered the last one,” Ducey said, adding that the state has increased the amount of manufacturing jobs and has led the nation in transportation, science, technology and health care.
“We got here by doing things our way, The Arizona Way. And I’m here to tell you: You ain’t seen nothing yet,” Ducey said.
In his address to the Legislature, Ducey laid out a wide-ranging policy agenda that includes spending priorities in public K-12 and college education, infrastructure, criminal justice, water policy, tax cuts for veterans, and proposing insurers cover mental health.
“We can never repay [veterans], but we can at least do our part to demonstrate our appreciation,” Ducey said. “The government shouldn’t be taxing their service to country, it should be honoring their service to country. Our budget does this, by eliminating all state income taxes on our veterans’ military pensions once and for all.”
By doing this, Ducey hopes to make the state “home base” for veterans across the country and a place where they can get the employment and health care they need, especially treatment for mental illness to help prevent suicide.
That’s an issue Ducey also hopes to broaden and address across the state by working with Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, and Rep. Jeff Weninger, R-Chandler, to require insurance companies to cover mental health as they would physical health.
The speech serves as a rough blueprint for each chamber and will define the direction of the 2020 legislative session.
In attendance were over a dozen guests Ducey invited, including Cindy McCain, Phoenix Fire Chief Kara Kalkbrenner, residents of the Navajo Nation, students of Ducey’s teacher academy, Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill.
Weeks before the speech, Ducey said education was his number one priority and it clearly was – taking up a significant portion of the speech. The goals Ducey set were broad and will be revealed in more detail when his budget is released this week.
Building on a promise Ducey made after the 2019 sine die he plans to expand Arizona’s Empowerment Scholarship Accounts program for students on the Navajo Nation so they can attend a school across the state line into New Mexico. Students in Window Rock had been using voucher money on a school not in the state and received a demanding letter from the Arizona Department of Education requesting the money back or they would lose their ESA.
A last minute bill was introduced and Ducey signed it holding the families harmless from reimbursing the state. The bill gave those students approval to keep spending at the school, which is still on the Navajo Nation, but they would have to find a permanent option for schooling after July 2020.
“This bill is only a temporary remedy for the children and families who currently participate in the scholarship program. The impacted children will be allowed to attend a school that has served them well for years for just one more school year – all the time knowing that they will not be able to continue, unless a permanent solution is enacted,” Ducey wrote when he signed the bill.
Ducey said in his speech the program “is truly something that makes Arizona unique.”
“Here, kids are not trapped in failing schools. And despite what you hear from some folks on the national campaign trail, school choice isn’t about charter schools versus private schools versus district schools. It’s about kids and families. “
The demand for school safety grants has far exceeded the $20 million lawmakers allotted, but the Education Department won’t request lawmakers allocate the full $97.5 million it would cost to fund all the requests next year. That is because even if the Governor’s Office and lawmakers decided to shell out enough funding to cover every school’s request, there are too many requests for schools to find people to fill.
In total, schools requested more than 1,100 positions, 40 percent of which were for counselors, 34 percent were for social workers and another 26 percent were for school resource officers, according to the department. Richie Taylor, Hoffman’s spokesman, said that just like with teachers, there simply aren’t enough cops, social workers and counselors in Arizona to go around.
“The difficulty is even if the governor was going to give us $80 million, which isn’t going to happen, we would run into significant pipeline issues of schools not being able to find people to fill the positions that are funded,” he said. “So there’s a sweet spot in there somewhere that’s more than we have now but less than what was requested.”
Further complicating the issue, if a district reaches a certain ratio of school resource officers to supervisors it has to hire a sergeant to manage the officers, which isn’t covered under the grant funding.
Part of what has sped the state’s economic progress, Ducey said, is stripping unneeded regulations and “red tape” that hinder business growth and development, which he continued to do on Monday. Ducey said he rescinded 23 executive orders, eliminating 18 boards and commissions he said were unneeded, and 2,289 regulations, the equivalent of $134 million in tax cuts.
He announced he issued a new executive order that requires any government entity that wants a new regulation to identity three it can eliminate. He also called on state boards that are “stock-piling cash and sitting on bank accounts of millions in reserves,” to freeze fees they charge, including occupational licensing fees for all veterans and their families.
Building on the completion of the 202 loop, Ducey announced he would, literally, build bipartisan bridges, namely the one that crosses the Gila River. The new bridge would be part of the state’s larger plan to widen I-10 from Phoenix to Tucson, replacing the 56-year-old one, which 62,000 people drive over every day.
Ducey laid out earmarks that would theoretically increase economic opportunity for rural Arizonans, which still lack high-speed internet and whose business leaders are, on average, much older than urban and faster growing areas. To help, Ducey said he’s tripling the spending in rural broadband grants and $50 million in “smart highway corridors.
In addition to a $4 million grant for expanding the so-called “manufacturing corridor,” Ducey wants the state to work with Local First Arizona to survey struggling areas with aging business and community leadership to address their needs.
Ducey also said he’s pushing for a few policies that would change the way the state approaches the criminal justice system and the people in it. One change is simple: renaming the state agency that deals with that to the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Re-entry, which some of Ducey’s staff said before the speech aims to clarify the mission of the department and the values it pushes.
More tangibly, Ducey said he wants to give the department $10 million in state money to help staff counselors and start up drug rehabilitation programs to help reduce prison recidivism rates. He also said the state will, at some point, shut down Florence Prison, which is aging.
It wouldn’t be cost-effective to fix it, Ducey and staff said, so they’re going to shut most of it down, keep the death row chamber open, but move prisoners and corrections officers to Eyman Prison and a few other state prisons, and some private prisons.
Where the money for that prison and its resources will go will be detailed in the coming budget. But there was no mention of revamping sentencing laws from Ducey, and his staff said there are no current plans for any.
The Department of Child Safety is also getting some help. Ducey is proposing $19 million in new funding for the department, which would go towards a 10 percent raise for caseworkers and more assistance, about 5% more, for kinship care, according to Ducey’s staff.
Ducey called for the Legislature to approve a ballot referendum, introduced by Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, to allow Arizona residents to decide whether to allow sanctuary cities in the state.
It’s illegal across the state, but the enforcing language is not voter-protected, meaning that this vote would potentially put that decision in the state constitution, his staff said.
Despite water management being such a hot topic last year, Ducey spent little time talking about it.
Although the Legislature fast-tracked the delicately debated Drought Contingency Plan, which they couldn’t afford to tweak or reject, its work on water is far from over. Lawmakers’ next urgent issue is managing its depleting groundwater supply in urban and rural areas.
Those who are historically against regulation and government oversight, including rural farmers, Republican lawmakers and Ducey are “open minded” to applying some of the same regulations in urban areas to ensure those places grow responsibly and sustainably.
“We will continue to protect Lake Mead, the Colorado River, groundwater, and our ag jobs,” Ducey said, adding that the state “shouldn’t be dealing with this issue one generation at a time.”
“We need a strategic ongoing effort to turn Arizona into the international capital for water innovation. Look at all that Israel has accomplished. Why not Arizona? We’ve been a leader on water, and with this approach, we will be an even stronger leader far into the future.”
There are several bills that propose a range of solutions waiting to be heard and there are several committees formed by the Legislature that will set precedent for rural areas and prepare the state for what’s projected to be a hotter and drier future.
Senate Minority Leader David Bradley said Ducey’s speech epitomized the differences in their world views.
Bradley said Ducey focuses on the economy and sees the $1 billion rainy day fund as government running smoothly, while Democrats see it as the hollowing out of government.
Bradley said he liked Ducey’s proposal for a stipend for people raising their grandchildren, but it’s an idea he tried to pass 10 years ago and one that a fellow Democrat tried last year.
“It always amuses me that they abscond with our ideas after they’ve percolated for a few years,” Bradley said.
Correction: A previous version of a caption for this story erroneously identified Senate President Karen Fann as Karen Bowers.