Editor’s note: This story was published in print in our Aug. 25 Session Wrap edition, which reviewed and analyzed the 2023 legislative session.
In her first legislative session as governor, Katie Hobbs had to navigate a sharply divided Legislature, at times working closely with Republican leadership while also facing attempts by GOP lawmakers to thwart her agenda.
The Democratic governor scored a few notable victories working in concert with the other party, such as passing a bipartisan budget in May well before many Capitol watchers predicted a spending plan would come together. Even with the budget done, the longest legislative session in state history lingered on for months as Republicans prolonged the confirmation process for Hobbs’ executive nominees and the two sides hammered out a Proposition 400 compromise.
In the end, the governor left several key priorities on the table, including reforms to the state’s ballooning Empowerment Scholarship Account program and water, housing and homelessness solutions.
But Hobbs is bullish that she will be able to address more of her priorities next year, even as she faces the prospect of working with Republican leaders while simultaneously backing Democratic attempts to take away their legislative majority ahead of the 2024 election.
What grade would you give your administration now that your first session is in the books? And what do you consider your biggest wins coming out of this session?
Well, I’m not really in the business of grading; I’ll let the pundits do that. But I think that we had some really big bipartisan wins, not just for the administration but for Arizonans. Obviously, the bipartisan budget – the first in a long time to get through with supermajority support was really important and had some big wins for Arizonans with our investments in the Housing Trust Fund, big investments in K-12 education and infrastructure projects.
So that’s one and then Prop. 400, obviously. A lot of people had written its obituary many times, and we were able to get that passed as well.
A lot of folks around the Capitol were surprised to see a budget passed so soon in the session, but the spending plan did receive some criticism, because getting a lot of those votes relied on handing out pork projects to legislators. What is your response to that criticism? Do you think this is a sustainable model moving forward as the state is unlikely to have as large of a surplus next year?
I’m certainly hopeful that in a session where we have a much longer runway to lay out our priorities and agenda that we can focus on less pork and more long-term goals. But I want to just reiterate that those projects are really important to rural communities … communities where we often overlook the need to invest in infrastructure. They’re going to create jobs, and they’re going to invest in the long-term future of the state.
Reining in the ESA program was a big talking point during your campaign, but we didn’t see any major changes this year. Are you planning any executive action on this or will there be more pushes next session with the legislature to rein this program in?
We are certainly looking at every option available to rein in this unaccountable, unsustainable program. The Republican leadership made it clear that it was not on the table this session. And moving forward, I think we’re armed with much better data that really shows how unsustainable this program is in the long term. I think there are bipartisan cries to do something to rein it in, and we’ll go into the next session with a renewed focus on how we do that. And certainly, if we can’t get legislative action, we’re going to look at what we can do from the executive side.
What are some of your other priorities going into next session?
We established a number of task forces with executive orders focused on the priorities – the Governor’s Interagency and Community Council on Homelessness and Housing; the Educator Retention Task Force; the Water Policy Council – and those folks are all tasked with getting a report to us before the legislative session with legislative recommendations. So that’ll form some of our priorities going into the session. These are all big issues that we’re dealing with as a state, and it’s going to take us working together to tackle them.
You’ll see us continue to focus on border communities and how we can continue to work with them in the absence of federal action on comprehensive border security and immigration policy. And some of the other big issues that continue – obviously, climate is huge. We’re seeing the impact of it right now; we have a lot more to do there.
Based on what you’ve seen so far from Water Policy Council meetings, what type of proposals are you expecting to come out of there that you think could realistically garner the bipartisan support you’re going to need to make reforms or institute changes in that area?
We absolutely are going to need bipartisan support to get some of these things done, which is why we really intentionally put a lot of folks who have been on opposing sides of making some of these changes. And I think they’re having really hard conversations and understand the issues that they need to grapple with. This is really critical to the future of our state, and we need a seat at the table until we get this done. It might not happen this legislative session, but we’ll keep working on it.
You’ve had some victories working with Republican leaders this year – the budget, the Prop. 400 compromise – but we’ve also seen them throw roadblocks in your way, most notably with the confirmation of some of your director appointments. So how do you plan to navigate that relationship going forward?
I think it’s clear that we’re in an extremely divided time in terms of our politics, and I don’t see those partisan agendas going away anytime soon. I think what the victories show, and I’ve said this all along, is that when we can put those partisan issues aside and focus on what really matters, we can get it done. And we’re going to continue to push the agenda that we need to accomplish what I was elected to as governor and, looking at all the options we have for making sure we have permanent directors at state agencies, that Arizonans are getting the services they should from our government, and just continuing to navigate that process. They’re continuing to move the goalposts, but I’m focused on how we get things done.
Is there anything else you would like to add looking back at the session?
With the Democrats, we’re continuing to build those relationships as well. As important as it is to have relationships across the aisle, working within the Democratic Party, the Democratic caucus, is important. So we’re continuing [to do that], and I think we’ll definitely be in a stronger position going into next session.
So does that mean we’ll see a new tamale bill?
We’re certainly working with stakeholders on that issue.
With the 2024 elections approaching – there could be an abortion initiative on there that you have promised to back; there’s going to be a fight for the legislative majority – could that complicate the relationship with Republican leaders even further?
It certainly can. You’ve seen when I’ve taken executive action, it’s created some blowback. I continue to stand by the executive actions we’ve taken; I’ll continue to use the force of my office to do what I believe the voters elected me to do and protect our fundamental freedoms. And, certainly, no one can predict what the next session is going to look like. I am still optimistic that there are places where we can find common ground to come together.
You have experience at the legislative level. How did that experience working on that side of it inform how you navigated this session?
There were some preexisting relationships on both sides of the aisle. I certainly understood the role of the Legislature and my role and how it was important to work together. But certainly, there’s things I can do without working with them, which I will continue to do. But I think every Legislature is different. I think this Legislature is probably the most divided – even though the numbers are the closest we’ve seen in a long time, [it is] the most of it we’ve seen in a long time. I’ll continue to leverage the relationships I have and work to get things done for the best of Arizona.
You’ve had some turnover in your office that’s been well publicized, which is not totally unusual for a new governor. Do you see that coming to an end? Do you see more stability going forward into the next year?
We’re going to continue to make sure that our office is in the best and strongest position possible to carry out my agenda. I am not going to say that there won’t be any more changes. Certainly, as [new Chief of Staff Chad Campbell] has gotten settled, he is looking at how things are working, but I feel good about where things are and moving forward.
Questions and answers were edited for clarity.