A member of the legislative Freedom Caucus is boasting that she’s getting a meeting with Gov. Katie Hobbs, a meeting she said will let her explain to the governor the virtues of making vouchers of taxpayer dollars available to all parents so their children can attend private and parochial schools.
Hobbs, however, tells Capitol Media Services that while she agreed to sit down with Justine Wadsack, that’s not how the Republican senator from Tucson pitched the meeting to her when she button-holed the governor as she was trying to leave an unrelated event. More to the point, Hobbs said Wadsack is mistaken if she thinks that’s how the conversation is going to go.
The only thing the two agree on is there will be a sit down.
And that happened only because Wadsack used her attendance at a ceremony last week where Hobbs was signing unrelated legislation to spring the idea on the governor.
Wadsack was the sponsor of a measure designed to provide at least an interim solution for about 1,000 residents of the Rio Verde wildcat subdivision north of Scottsdale who suddenly found themselves without water after the city turned off the spigot to a standpipe they used for years to truck it to their homes. Scottsdale officials said they are no longer willing to use their limited supply for the rural residents who built and moved into their homes knowing there was no actual water company.
Wadsack crafted a compromise which will have a private company supply the water for some period, with Scottsdale treating it, for a fee. In the interim, her legislation sets up a board to come up with a longer-term solution.
Hobbs, in a signing ceremony with Wadsack present, said the measure showed bipartisan deals are possible.
As the governor was trying to leave the ceremony, Wadsack approached her.
“After we shook hands, I told her that ESA is not to be dismantled on my watch,” Wadsack announced in an online post, referring to vouchers by their formal name of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. “And then I asked her for a meeting to discuss ESA, and she said ‘OK.’ ”
Wadsack retold the story Saturday in a weekly newsletter put out by Senate Republicans.
“I look forward to meeting with the governor to discuss the importance of supporting ESAs for generations to come,” she added.
But Hobbs has a different story.
“I just want to set the record straight that her statement was not what she said to me,” the governor said. “She just said she wanted to meet about ESAs.”
Hobbs said she’s willing to do that — if Wadsack concedes the fiscal flaws in universal vouchers.
“If she wants to justify why working families are subsidizing private school tuition, I’m happy to have that conversation with her,” the governor said.
As Hobbs sees it, the universal voucher program approved by lawmakers in 2022 amounts to a transfer of tax dollars to well-to-do families who already had been paying tuition for their children to attend private and parochial schools.
Until then, only students who met certain criteria were eligible for the vouchers of about $7,200 a year. That included those with special needs, youngsters in foster care and students attending public schools rated D or F.
That 2022 legislation removed all those conditions. And with the state now willing to pick up the tab — at least the first $7,200 for those attending more costly private schools — voucher enrollment ballooned from only about 12,000 to more than 60,000, with many of the new enrollees being students who already were in private schools on their parent’s dime.
There are estimates, including from state schools chief Tom Horne, a supporter of vouchers, that figure could reach 100,000. And that would carry a $900 million annual price tag.
All that, Hobbs told Capitol Media Services, is why she would never agree to even discuss leaving the program as it is now.
“We have to put some sort of parameters around it,” she said. “It’s unsustainable the way it is.”
But Wadsack, in a follow-up online conversation with Capitol Media Services, said even discussing any possibility of scaling back the program is not her agenda — or why she wants to meet with Hobbs.
“I hope to help her see the benefits of ESAs,” she said.
The senator said she will listen to “her side,” meaning the governor “so I may understand why there is so much misinformation and a push to dismantle the program.”
Hobbs has never sought to kill vouchers outright which have been around in Arizona in some form since 2011. And the governor said she recognizes that even totally repealing the 2022 law creating universal vouchers may not be politically possible in the Republican-controlled Legislature.
So Hobbs said she’s willing to compromise, perhaps with a partial rollback or a cap on new vouchers.
“We’re going to find something that can make it through this legislative session,” she said. But the governor said Republicans are going to have to realize that doing nothing and leaving the program as is is not an option.
“We’re seeing bigger and bigger numbers that cause a lot of concern about how much this is going to cost,” she said.
Wadsack, for her part, was miffed that Hobbs is telling a different story than what she believes actually happened.
“The governor has already misunderstood other conversations,” the senator told Capitol Media Services after being informed of the governor’s take on their brief conversation and parameters for any meeting. “And she’s willing to let you put out a piece that makes it look like she misunderstood her conversation with me?”
Wadsack said there may be a political reason for that.
“It sounds to me like she’s getting grief for having smiled at me and shaken my hand,” she said.