Ducey plots $1 billion water plan, few details in final State of the State address

Ducey plots $1 billion water plan, few details in final State of the State address

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, front, gives his state of the state address at the Arizona Capitol, Monday, Jan. 10, 2022, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Gov. Doug Ducey touted his accomplishments and outlined a legislative agenda that includes action on water issues, education, border security and infrastructure in his eighth and final State of the State address on Monday. 

“The state of our state is strong,” Ducey said. But he added: “The job isn’t done.” 

Plans announced on Monday include a proposal to use $1 billion to bring desalinated seawater to Arizona, launching a summer camp to help kids that lost educational ground during the pandemic, speeding up work on Interstate 10, continuing to cut taxes and even adding to the border wall. The 50-minute speech featured applause lines about conservative priorities like tax cuts, school choice and support for law enforcement; it also contained withering criticism of President Joe Biden and lawmakers in Washington D.C. 

Longtime GOP consultant Chuck Coughlin said Ducey’s speech touched on a lot of priorities but was short on details. “In that respect, it was a sprinkling of ideas into the legislative environment that people could choose to take,” he said. 

Unlike previous state of the state addresses that Ducey has delivered, Monday’s speech didn’t include any surprises. “He threw the 80 mile-per-hour fastball right down the middle,” Coughlin said. 

The governor kicked things off with praise for his role in turning the state around since his first run for job back in 2014, when the state was in a fiscal hole. “Today, a lot is different in Arizona. We have lived within our means: We have more citizens, our budget is balanced, our economy is roaring and our government is smaller and more efficient than it’s ever been.” 

This year is the governor’s last chance to burnish his credentials as he contemplates his next move and Monday’s speech indicated he’s planning to stake his legacy on some of the same economic issues that have defined his two terms so far. “I’ll present a budget on Friday that keeps this stewardship going – paying off more debt, and topping off our rainy-day fund, so that we don’t just own this house, but we leave the people’s house truly in order,” he said. 

Ducey’s address at the House of Representatives provides a partial roadmap for what is expected to be a lengthy and combative legislative session. 

Democratic Arizona leaders offered their own vision for the state on Monday in a plan they dubbed “Blueprint for a Better Arizona” that would direct federal Covid relief money to schools and water issues. House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding said the growing economy means Arizona has a real opportunity to invest in schools and other areas. 

“What stands in our way is a governor who has lost interest in the pandemic,” Bolding said, plus a “far-right” legislature “that roots for failure” by supporting slashing social safety nets and opposing democracy. 

Bolding said he expects “an intense right-wing assault against voting rights in the 2022 session,” including bills that could make it harder to vote by mail or register to vote and measures to put new burdens on election officials. 

“We know the fight in the upcoming session will be to save democracy itself,” he said. 

Ducey has long said education is his top priority as governor and a significant of Monday’s address was devoted to the topic. He proposed the summer program to get students caught up who may have fallen behind due to Covid, with a plan to teach math, reading and civics. Ducey Spokesman CJ Karamargin said the program would be funded with at least $100 million. He also called on lawmakers to “expand school choice any way we can,” which sounded like an invitation to revisit a voucher expansion that Republicans tried but failed to pass last year. 

House Majority Leader Ben Toma, R-Peoria, said school choice is an area where work could get done. “I think there’s still an opportunity to make it more of a reality in practice,” he said. 

But the governor’s education plans weren’t well-received by Democrats. To illustrate a need for more school choice, Ducey said that poor and minority students are trapped in failing schools because “union-backed politicians” won’t let them out. Sen. Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said it was “disingenuous” to suggest public schools were the real problem for children of color. She said the governor’s comments on education – which also included bashing “critical race theory” – were pandering to the far right. “Unfortunately I think that this speech was more about him seeking higher office than truly trying to address the educational concerns of our school kids.” 

Rich Nickel, president and CEO of Education Forward Arizona, said the governor should have focused on other issues including the state’s teacher shortage and the aggregate spending limit, which is set to strip schools of the power to spend more than $1 billion if lawmakers don’t act before March 1. 

Ducey also served up conservative talking points by blasting the “defund the police movement” and said he plans to boost law enforcement spending, including raising state troopers’ pay to make them the highest-paid law enforcement agency in the state.  

On border issues, the governor offered a five-point plan that includes more money for his border strike force, paying counties to increase prosecution of smuggling crimes and adding to the border wall where possible. It sounded like a shift in tone for the governor, who earned praise in his first term for turning down the temperature on border issues and focusing on Arizona’s commercial relationship with Mexico. At the State of the State, it was all about law and order on the border – and stinging criticism of Washington’s immigration policy. “Our southern border has never been more deadly or more dangerous. Meanwhile, the White House and Congress have decided to turn a blind eye,” Ducey said. “This is a national crisis – and it calls for leadership.” 

While much of the policy agenda Ducey outlined in his speech dealt with topics such as police funding, school choice and critical race theory that are sure to divide lawmakers along partisan lines, he also talked up some infrastructure initiatives that could get bipartisan support. The billion-dollar water plan includes one such proposal – a desalination plant that would be built in conjunction with Mexico on the Sea of Cortez. Ducey also called for boosting state funding to finish expanding a 20-mile stretch of I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson. 

The partisan divide over Covid protocols was on full display on the House floor, with most of the Democrats wearing masks, but none of the Republicans doing so, including Ducey. Four Democrats were absent Monday, two of whom – Reps. Andrea Dalessandro, D-Green Valley, and Athena Salman, D-Tempe – have publicly expressed concern about the House’s lack of Covid rules. Dalessandro, who has blood cancer, tweeted on Monday that she plans to avoid the House floor and do her job from her House office. And Salman, who is expected to give birth soon, last week lambasted House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, for not agreeing to let her participate remotely. 

“I’m being forced into an environment that significantly jeopardizes my life and significantly jeopardizes the life and well-being of my future baby. … It’s just cruel,” she said. 

Two Republicans – Reps. John Fillmore, R-Apache Junction, and Joanne Osborne, R-Goodyear – were absent Monday because they are isolating due to Covid exposure, said House GOP spokesman Andrew Wilder. And Toma, who was present on the floor Monday, said he had Covid recently but took and received several negative tests, including one Sunday night, before coming in, although he still doesn’t feel 100% better. He said he didn’t get respiratory issues when he was infected but suffered from throat and body aches. 

“It’s all right,” he said. “I’m definitely on the mend.” 

Monday’s speech was also notable for what was left out.  

The governor’s discussion of Covid was largely limited to the education portion of the speech, when he discussed the pandemic’s disruption of learning. The Arizona Department of Health Services reported almost 14,000 new Covid cases on Monday. Ducey did not refer to the 2020 election audit, which is still ongoing, and only mentioned the host of election security legislation already being filed and discussed in a brief moment towards the end of his speech. He said state leaders would work together on “improvements to our elections, to bring confidence and security.” 

Looking ahead to the upcoming House and Senate sessions – which officially began hours before the State of the State – Ducey said he won’t mind working into the summer if that’s what it takes to get big-ticket legislation done in his last year as the state’s top executive. “We’ll have all year to grind it out together,” he said.

Yellow Sheet Report Editor Wayne Schutsky contributed to this report.