Ducey defends Covid response, offers short list of legislative priorities

Dillon Rosenblatt//January 11, 2021//

Ducey defends Covid response, offers short list of legislative priorities

Dillon Rosenblatt//January 11, 2021//

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Gov. Doug Ducey gives his State of the State address to the Legislature remotely from his office Jan. 11, 2021.

In delivering his shortest State of the State address to date, Gov. Doug Ducey made Covid the dominant theme of his speech on Monday, although he hinted at a host of legislative priorities for 2021. 

The theme of this year’s speech was #AZResilient, (following previous themes #AZAwesome, #ThingsThatMatterAZ and #The ArizonaWay), and Ducey highlighted that resilience theme by offering praise to doctors, nurses and other health care workers on the front lines who have helped care for Covid patients for months. 

Ducey said the 10,000 Arizonans who died due to Covid is an example of the best not being enough. 

“In so many ways, an extremely tough year brought out the best in us. And yet sometimes, despite all, our best wasn’t enough,” Ducey said remotely from his office. Arizona’s Covid numbers show 10,147 deaths so far and more than 625,000 known positive cases. Hospitalizations almost hit 5,000 today, which is the highest it’s been to date. 

But the governor noted that with the vaccine here, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. 

“If last year was the year of the virus, this year will be the year of the vaccine,” he said. 

Ducey said there are extremists on both sides – those calling for a lockdown and those calling to reopen everything –  but said he’s going to stick to his centrist path. 

“In my 50-plus meetings with the press, I’ve heard endless variations of the same question: Why not more and longer lockdowns?” He said, adding said Arizona has never been under a lockdown, and it’s not something anybody should expect to happen. 

“Look at the experience of the other states that did lockdown. What do they have to show for their strict mandates and orders? They’re still dealing with the worst of it. Just as we are,” Ducey said.

House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, said he and the other Democrats still had many questions after listening to Ducey’s speech. He contrasted Ducey’s more general statements on COVID-19 with the more specific proposals the Democratic leadership touted in a news conference this morning, such as extending the eviction moratorium and making it easier for Arizonans to collect unemployment benefits, among other areas.

“My hope is the governor is able to look at the comprehensive approach that we put (forth) and compare it with whatever he’s working on so we can move forward with this crisis that is affecting many Arizonans,” Bolding said.

He took a shot at mayors who’ve clearly gotten under his skin.

“I’m not going to hand over the keys to a small group of mayors who have expressed every intention of locking down their cities,” he said, referring to Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, who have been harsh critics of Ducey’s management of the crisis.

Arizona is the current worst spot in the world for new cases per capita and continues to hit records for hospitalizations and other metrics that show a bleak future reliant on the vaccine.

The speech, which clocked in at just 22 minutes, compared to last year’s 64-minute speech and the previous year’s 39-minute speech, was light on policy proposal , but included a few hints of what might be coming in his budget proposal Friday, including “eliminating unnecessary state buildings.” He also spoke about more tax cuts, Covid liability protection for businesses, modernizing the gaming compact, expanding access to broadband internet as well as offering laptops and wi-fi to students who don’t have access.

Ducey said he’s not going to provide any additional cash to public schools who have found themselves with fewer children in classrooms due to the pandemic. Instead, the governor said he wants to get students “back where they belong.”

“With every public health professional, from Dr. Fauci and the CDC on down, saying that the safest place for kids to be is in schools, we will not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure,” he said. “Children still need to learn, even in a pandemic.”

After the speech, press aide C.J. Karamargin said his boss is not considering cutting off funds to schools who instruct students either in whole or in part online. He said Ducey supports virtual options for parents who want them.

“When he references not funding ’empty seats,’ he simply means that for parents who have chosen a new option for their kids, the money will follow that will follow that student to their new public school,” Karamargin said, options that include other traditional district schools as well as charter schools.

Notably, Ducey did not mention any of his priorities from 2020 that did not come to fruition due to a truncated session. Several, if not all, are likely to come back in one form or another this year, but will take a backseat to his and the Legislature’s Covid response. 

Ducey announced last year he would shut down the state prison in Florence — which came as a surprise to everyone, including Florence. The plan was riddled with unanswered questions, but was supposed to happen over a three-year period. It’s unclear how Covid affected that timeline and if any progress has been made, given prisoners and correctional officers testing positive for the virus.

Ducey pushed an education program he dubbed “Project Rocket” that would appropriate money to low-income, low-performing students in K-12 schools in an effort to close the achievement gap. However, that failed to launch as Democrats and some Republicans wanted to amend it last year.

Ducey’s budget plan will come on Friday, and given his nod to the achievement gap in his speech, it’s possible he’ll set aside money for it.

Reporter Nate Brown and Capitol Media Services contributed to this story.