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APS boss promises no more campaign cash for regulators

(Photo by Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)
(Photo by Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press)

The new CEO of Arizona Public Service Co. vowed today the company, its parent company, Pinnacle West, and other known affiliates won’t spend money on campaigns for utility regulators while he’s in charge. 

CEO Jeff Guldner’s statement came at a meeting of the Corporation Commission in which he fielded questions, giving them what they waited months to hear: a promise to no longer allow the utility to contribute to the elections of the regulators who will have to regulate them.

Chairman Bob Burns, who has previously received money from APS and its affiliates, asked Guldner back in September — when Don Brandt was still CEO and Guldner was still in waiting to take the top job — if Guldner could commit to not contributing any longer, Guldner said he was not in a position to make that promise. 

Jeff Guldner
Jeff Guldner

Guldner brought up the subject again on Tuesday, keeping everybody in suspense before making the commitment. 

Burns said it was the only question he wanted answered.

Guldner did want to clarify an additional remark that he cannot control individual employees. 

“I do intend to make it clear to the executive team that I will be very frustrated, but I cannot prohibit (under federal election law) them to make contributions individually to commissioners,” he said. Employees can still contribute “fives” as Guldner called, meaning five dollar contributions here and there, but Guldner emphasized he wants all employees to avoid giving commissioners money.

Three of the current commissioners, Lea Marques Peterson, Boyd Dunn and Burns have all accepted contributions from APS and other utilities and now have to disclose it before any vote relating to those companies under a code of ethics pushed by Commissioner Justin Olson last year.

Burns said he did not want to put Guldner in any position where he would violate the law, referring to the five dollar rule, but he did accept the promise and turned it over to the other commissioners. 

Dunn commended his fellow commissioners for putting the code of ethics into place calling it “the most comprehensive code of ethics in this area of any commission in the country, if not any state agency” and also commended Guldner for making this promise. 

“I think enormously important for APS and I commend you for that statement,” Dunn said.

He said that other utilities have made similar statements in the past, so APS joining the other utilities in vowing to no longer spend on commissioners who have to regulate them is a “healthy attitude.” 

Dunn, like Burns, only had one question for Gulder. 

“Do you really mean it?”

Guldner said, “Absolutely.”

Bill changes how much lobbyists must report when they spend on legislators

A House committee approved a bill that would potentially lower how much lobbyists report compared to what they actually spend for events where lawmakers or state employees are invited.

The measure would change the reporting rules by requiring that only the fair market value of the food, beverage and other tangible benefits received by the state officer or employee is reported. Currently, reportable expenditures are based on the total expenditure incurred by the lobbyist for the benefit of the organization hosting the event.

It’s not uncommon, for example, for lobbyists or companies to sponsor tables at charitable events. Currently, if they invited legislators to sit at their table, they must report the total amount they spent, even though the market value of food and beverage may be considerably less.

Sen. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills)
Sen. John Kavanagh (R-Fountain Hills)

SB1118, sponsored by Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, was approved on March 1 by the House Government Committee, 6-2, with Democrats Ken Clark, of Phoenix, and Athena Salman, of Tempe, voting against it.

Kavanagh said the bill, which was unanimously approved by the Senate, was brought to him by the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce, which argued that current reporting requirements are unfair.

Mike Huckins, a lobbyist for the chamber, said because the value of the ticket can vary depending on where someone is sitting or how much a sponsor donated to the organization running the event, it’s not an accurate representation of what the lawmaker or public employee received. The cost of the event, he added, goes toward the organization and does not benefit the public official.

However, Clark argued that lawmakers get more than just a meal and a drink out of attending these events. He said lawmakers are invited to them “because they play a prominent role,” and groups want to influence them.

“When I first saw the bill, it seemed reasonable to me to report the fair market value,” Clark said. However, as he looked further into it, he became concerned that reporting the fair market value alone is not transparent, he said.

“If a lobbyist gets you into a $500-a-plate meal or gala, the public has a right to believe that there’s some kind of expectation there,” he said, adding, “If you’re going to report the fair market value, you should also report the total ticket value so the public knows.”

Rep. Athena Salman (D-Tempe)
Rep. Athena Salman (D-Tempe)

Salman said she has had the opportunity to meet lobbyists and industry representatives at these events, an opportunity she otherwise wouldn’t have had if she isn’t a legislator.

“To me, there’s a value in that,” she said, adding that the current reporting requirements capture that. “To argue the only benefit someone who votes on laws is getting by going to these events is a free meal and a free drink, I think, is misleading to the public.”

Huckins disagreed.

“Obviously, there are other incidental benefits from going to an event, but how do you put a price tag on that?” he said.

An amendment Clark proposed but later withdrew would have addressed this point by requiring that the fair market value and the total value of the ticket be reported. Kavanagh said he hadn’t seen the amendment but would be open to discussing the issue further with Clark.

Rep. Ray Martinez, D-Phoenix, who voted in favor of moving the bill out of committee, said he reserved the right to later change his vote if some of the concerns brought up by Clark and Salman aren’t addressed.

Democrats almost had a voice in budget process, but Republicans didn’t hear them

Democrats and Republicans can agree on one thing this year – the minority party in Arizona had a rare opportunity to have some say in the budget process, thanks to the initial resistance of some GOP lawmakers to a borrowing plan for public universities.

Gov. Doug Ducey
Gov. Doug Ducey (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

In the end, Gov. Doug Ducey got his $1 billion bonding capacity for higher education, and Democrats got what they routinely get: Left behind.

Republicans say Democrats overplayed their hand. Ducey and GOP leaders were willing to talk, but Democrats asked for too much and were too firmly entrenched in their request to make negotiating a reality.

Democrats charged that Republicans, like always in recent years, have no interest in ever working across the aisle, no matter the offer, even on issues that are obvious candidates for bipartisan support.

In this case, a plan to let Arizona State University, the University of Arizona and Northern Arizona University borrow up to $1 billion over the next 25 years was initially rebuffed by almost all Republican senators and representatives. They were wary of allowing the state to borrow that much money, and of a mechanism to divert sales taxes from state coffers to finance the borrowing plan.

Knowing the bonding plan, Ducey’s signature proposal, lacked enough Republican support in both the House and Senate to pass without Democratic votes, minority leadership in each chamber united their members. Democrats would unilaterally oppose the bonding plan, preventing Ducey from proclaiming a bipartisan victory when, as in past years, a single Democrat or two broke ranks and voted for a bill or budget.

Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs
Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

“What you saw happen was the Democrats stuck together with a unified request,” said Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix. “If you asked every individual Democrat, they would’ve told you the same answer: Teacher raises and TANF.” TANF is the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, which provides short-term cash assistance to families.

The Democrats’ demands, in exchange for their vote on bonding, was in line with their policy priorities for the session. The minority party had blasted the governor for his initial proposal of a teacher pay raise – 2 percent phased in over five years – as wholly inadequate. And they had spent the better part of two years criticizing Ducey for signing into law cuts to TANF in 2015.

Hobbs acknowledged that their initial request was more than Republicans were willing to pay for. A 4 percent teacher raise, whether it was in one year or phased in over two, would have added more than $100 million in spending.

“So for them it was less expensive to buy off Republicans individually,” Hobbs said.

Barry Aarons
Barry Aarons

Longtime Capitol lobbyist Barry Aarons said the request was a part of what undercut Democrats’ efforts to be taken seriously in a negotiation.

“I don’t think the Democrats gave themselves enough opportunity to find some wins for themselves, and that’s because they limited their offer to some things that were non-starters to begin with,” Aarons said.

Experience might have something to do with it, Aarons said. Not since Rose Mofford occupied the Governor’s Office have Democrats been given a chance to take part in the budget, he said, with the exception of the passage of Medicaid expansion in 2013.

Republicans began the trend of passing Republican-only budget under former Gov. Fife Symington, who served from 1991 to 1997, according to Aarons.

“I think that is a result of years and years in the desert,” Aarons said. “Basically when it came to negotiating, I think they had not had the experience of going through a legitimate negotiation. Now whether it would’ve come to pass regardless, I don’t know.”

Several Democratic lawmakers said the teachers’ raise and TANF was just an offer, not a demand.

House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios
House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

“If you’re going to meet someone to negotiate, you need a starting point. And it was simply a starting point,” said House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix. “That was my opening offer to the governor.“

Rios said it was “naive” for critics to say the minority party overplayed their hand when the governor never seriously considered working with Democrats. A meeting between Rios and Ducey was cordial, though brief, she said. Negotiating was never on the table, so there was never an opportunity to give Ducey room to counter, she added.

Rather than work across the aisle, Ducey ultimately mustered enough support from Republicans to get the bill through. To some Republicans, that was, as it often is, always the goal.

Senate President Steve Yarbrough
Senate President Steve Yarbrough (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

“I wanted desperately to deliver 16 Republican votes on the university bonding,” said Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler. Delivering 16 Republican votes on the university bonding was a very high priority for him personally, he said.

“And I obviously was extremely pleased when we were able to accomplish that,” Yarbrough said.

Sen. Lupe Contreras, D-Avondale, said it’s understandable for Republicans to desire to work within their own party. What bothers Contreras is the lack of any consideration of ever working with Democrats.

“It comes down to the unwillingness of the governor to even think about wanting to work with us as Democrats as a whole,” Contreras said. “He chose to go around and make his deals like everyone knows with numerous Republicans before even talking with us about what we were asking.”

Aarons said “there is probably a better than even chance that . . .  Republicans would have said screw it, we’re not going to do this with you,” no matter what Democrats had offered.

Daniel Scarpinato, a Ducey spokesman, did not dispute that the meeting wasn’t a negotiation of any sort, but he did dispute the reason why.

“I wouldn’t even characterize it as negotiations because they were not willing to negotiate. They provided some demands of what they would need, and were unwilling to move at all,” Scarpinato said. “And the problem with that is, what they wanted on TANF, there were not 16 and 31 for that under any circumstance. It was just really something that wasn’t even possible to achieve.”

As for the Democrats’ proposal to increase the teacher pay hike, “we certainly were open to ways to improve that, but certainly you need to be able to pay for these things,” Scarpinato said.

Yarbrough said a larger raise in the budget also would’ve made it more difficult to secure enough Republicans, along with 13 Democrats in the Senate, to approve a spending plan.

“It’s hard to see how that would’ve worked,” Yarbrough added. “The higher teacher raise, the challenge there is, show me the money… That’s a big number. What would we have done? How would we have paid for that. They never came to me, because that would have been my question.”

Scarpinato said Democrats overplayed their hand, and as the final votes made clear, weren’t negotiating in good faith because Democrats were negotiating against issues that they inherently supported. For example, when it became clear that the university bonding plan would pass with or without the help of Senate Democrats, eight of the 13 Democrats in the chamber voted for it.

Had Democrats simply signaled their support for a bill they liked all along, the university bonding could have been sent to the governor’s desk much sooner, and Ducey wouldn’t have had to make deals with individual Republicans – deals that Democrats aren’t happy about, Scarpinato noted.

“We could have passed bonding sooner, and there’s probably some stuff that ended up in the budget that Democrats don’t like that may not have ended up in there had they just supported bonding from the onset,” he said.

Perhaps if Democrats had offered more in exchange for their votes on bonding, Aarons said, the session would’ve played out differently. Decades ago, Republicans frequently approached Democrats to get their help to pass budgets. In the Senate, it was then-Minority Leader Alfredo Gutierrez’s role to barter with the GOP for votes.

Gutierrez would give Republicans a long list of demands, enough to “choke a horse,” Aarons said, but it gave Republicans ample room to trade with Democrats and approve a coalition budget.

This session, Democrats “didn’t put enough stuff on the table, so they didn’t have enough negotiating room,” Aarons said.

“When you’re negotiating for something you don’t come with one thing. You come with a whole pot full of stuff . . . You give the other side an opportunity to go along with you, and then you’re able to declare victory.”

Ducey extols spending on his re-election

Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks to supporters, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at an election night party in Scottsdale, Ariz. Incumbent Ducey defeated Democratic challenger David Garcia for his second term. (AP Photo/Matt York)
Republican Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey speaks to supporters, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at an election night party in Scottsdale, Ariz. Incumbent Ducey defeated Democratic challenger David Garcia for his second term. (AP Photo/Matt York)

To hear Doug Ducey tell it, he got another four-year term as governor by waging a campaign based on his record.

Speaking Wednesday at the annual Republican Governors Association, Ducey told of his message of turning a $1 billion deficit into a $1 billion surplus, 274,000 new private sector jobs and a resolution of the major lawsuit filed against the state for failing to adequately fund public schools. And the governor told the business executives and lobbyists in the audience – individuals and companies that donate to the RGA – that a lot of the credit for being able to tell his story is due to the money they provided to the organization.

“It was the RGA that was the firewall for me that allowed me to make the case on what we had accomplished, what we were going to accomplish into the future and create that separation to keep Arizona red,” Ducey said.

But Ducey made no mention of the fact that the $8 million spent by the RGA in Arizona – more than Ducey spent on his own behalf – went not into positive ads promoting the incumbent governor’s agenda but instead into attacking Democrat David Garcia

There was nothing subtle about the RGA-sponsored commercials.

One began by telling viewers about 7,000 pounds of heroin seized, 4,800 criminal arrests for gang-related activity, and “young girls rescued from sex trafficking,” all by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“But now David Garcia and other radicals are demanding we abolish ICE,” it says, saying such a move  “would mean more drugs across our border and more gang members in our neighborhoods. That was backed up by a sinister-looking black-and-white video of someone in a hoodie carrying what appears to be a gun.

“David Garcia’s reckless policies could put Arizona’s families at risk,” it concludes.

The commercial is based on a comment Garcia made about “replacing” ICE with some other agency, not to simply eliminate it and what it does entirely. But it gave the RGA the ammunition to go after him.

Asked about that RGA-funded anti-Garcia campaign after his talk, Ducey pointed out that he is legally prohibited from working with any outside group that is making “independent expenditures” on his behalf.

“I have to follow the law,” he told Capitol Media Services.

“I’m responsible for my campaign,” the governor continued. “And I think my campaign was a positive campaign that not only talked about my record but what I’d like to do in the future.”

That campaign, Ducey said, contrasted his plans with those of Garcia.

By the same token, though, the governor had no particular problem with what the RGA was telling Arizona voters on his behalf.

“My opponent did say reckless things,” he said. “And the people spoke.”

RGA spokesman Jon Thompson defended the tone of the ads his organization ran in Arizona.

“I wouldn’t say they were designed to scare,” he said.

“Most of our ads were focused on David Garcia’s words,” Thompson continued, like calls to abolish ICE and telling an audience to “imagine no wall in Southern Arizona.”

“So a lot of these ads we basically just put in his own words and what he said he was going to do if he got elected,” Thompson said. “And we made it known to Arizona voters what this could lead to.”

And what of the images, like the criminal in a hoodie and a hypodermic needle dropping into a pile of white powder?

“I don’t think it was over the top,” he said.

“I think it was meant to make sure voters understood what was at stake in the election” like what happens if ICE goes away. “So we wanted to make sure to point that if he’s going to get rid of this agency, it’s going to be harder to stop some of these groups and some of these criminals that seek to commit criminal acts.”

Ducey acknowledged the benefit of all that financial help from the RGA which gave him a margin of victory of more than 16 points.

“I was out there raising support for my campaign,” the governor said, as did the other governors who also got elected. And he said there was a reason the organization put what it did into getting him another four years.

“The RGA is very strategic on where it spends its dollars,” Ducey said. “It doesn’t fund losers and it doesn’t pay for landslides.”

And Ducey said that you can’t look at his margin of victory over Garcia as an indication he didn’t need that outside help, saying he didn’t pull ahead of the Democrat until late in the race.

Ducey was not the only Republican governor telling donors about the importance of their dollars.

“By supporting the RGA you make sure Republican governors can get elected,” said Pete Ricketts of Nebraska.

Thompson said the $8 million spent in Arizona is about at the median of what the organization poured into races in other states where it got involved.

At the top of the list, he said, is Ohio where the $20 million helped Republican Mike DeWine to keep the post in GOP hands after John Kasich was termed out. There also were $15 million expenditures in Florida and Wisconsin as well as $12 million in the unsuccessful bid by Republican Adam Laxalt to defeat Democrat Steve Sisolak.

But Thompson said there also were smaller expenditures like in Maryland where a $5 million boost from RGA helped to make Larry Hogan that state’s first Republican governor reelected to a second term since 1954.

Fix inflation, don’t pass big spending bills

President Joe Biden speaks on Tuesday, July 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

As an Arizona business owner, I’ve seen the pain of higher prices facing our business and our employees. It’s not news that Arizonans are feeling the effects of inflation – from the grocery store to the gas pump. Prices of basic goods have soared to the highest rate in 40 years. Households across the country have seen electricity bills spike, and there is little relief in sight.

These rising prices are having a negative impact on Arizonans. A recent poll from the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors found that 64% of Arizonans have already felt the impact of higher inflation. We have been working to recover from the pandemic, and now is certainly not the time to hamper that recovery or cause prices to rise even more.

Douglas York

In his State of the Union Address, President Biden prioritized the same massive new spending measures that were included in his Build Back Better agenda. While it may have had a new name, these are the very same policies that would increase operating costs for businesses, driving prices up even further for Arizona consumers when our state is already seeing inflation outpacing the national average.

Our state has always valued common sense solutions and pro-growth policies, and that continues to hold true today. In that same poll, 56% of Arizonans agree that requiring American businesses to pay more in taxes than their competitors in China and Europe would hurt our state. Arizonans understand higher taxes and higher spending lead to inflation, and they don’t want to see policies enacted that will put us at an economic disadvantage, especially compared to Chinese or other foreign companies.

We need Washington to focus on policies that will help keep Arizona competitive – not massive new spending bills filled with politicians’ pet projects or pipe dreams.

As an Arizona business owner, I have a responsibility to my employees and to our customers to step up and say something. Even as the White House mistakenly continues to push the same tax and spend agenda, it is my hope that our Senators Krysten Sinema and Mark Kelly reject these massive new spending proposals and listen to their constituents instead. Nearly two-thirds of our fellow Arizonans agree on this point: now is not the time to pass enormous spending bills that could make inflation worse and put our economic recovery at risk. My employees, our customers, and everyday Arizonans want their elected officials to focus on economic growth, job creation, and putting a lid on inflation.

Douglas W. York is president and CEO of Ewing Irrigation & Landscape Supply in Phoenix.

 

 

Inflation, rising energy costs could squeeze families

Americans have their hands full right now. The COVID pandemic has made a major resurgence. And at the same time, inflation just hit 7 percent—the highest rate in 40 years. 

Matt Kandrach

Some of the toughest increases are happening in energy costs. In December, gasoline prices were up roughly 50 percent from a year ago. And the price of natural gas nearly doubled in 2021, driving up heating costs and power bills. 

As bad as things are, they could be worse. Energy prices in Europe have exploded, and European households are now paying 54 percent more for their electricity than two years ago—even with aggressive government assistance to reduce costs. Essentially, the pain felt across the Atlantic might be a preview for what’s coming in the U.S., if we don’t make an energy policy course correction. 

Europe’s energy crisis can largely be attributed to a bungled approach to the renewable energy transition—with “decarbonization” goals overwhelming considerations for energy security and affordability. Well-operating coal and nuclear power plants have been closed across the continent, and at the same time investment in new natural gas production hasn’t kept pace with demand. Europe’s all-in pivot to renewable power—and away from a balanced, on-demand energy mix—has left it painfully vulnerable to spiking natural gas prices and Vladimir Putin’s willingness to sell Russian gas. 

Without the dispatchable fuel diversity it once had, Europe has no safety valve when natural gas prices soar and renewable power won’t cooperate. There’s simply no alternative available when the wind won’t blow or cloudy skies curtail solar power. In those instances of a winter freeze, limited natural gas supplies, and exorbitant prices, the optionality and fuel security provided by a now-dismantled coal fleet is deeply missed.  

In comparison, the United States still has a significant coal fleet to take pressure off consumers. And in markets where coal still remains an option, coal plants have picked up market share and helped to keep power prices in check by reducing dependence on higher-priced natural gas.  

However, in states that have followed Europe’s lead—and rushed to close coal plants—consumers are paying the price. New England, for example, is facing a 30 percent hike in electricity costs due to the jump in natural gas prices. And consumers are now on alert to conserve power since the region’s grid operator is warning of potential outages during a prolonged cold spell. 

The return of energy-driven inflation and the European energy crisis are stark reminders that the global energy transition could take a very perilous road if we don’t recognize the value of a balanced energy mix. Americans need fuel diversity to ensure that consumers will be shielded from price spikes, fuel shortages, and underperforming renewable power generation. Maintaining fuel diversity means recognizing the coal fleet while there’s still time—as an invaluable and affordable insurance policy that must be retained for American consumers and our economic recovery. 

 

Matthew Kandrach 

President of Consumer Action for a Strong Economy 

Legislative leaders throw budgetary lifeline to schools

House Speaker Rusty Bowers on Monday, February 14, 2022, at the Rules Committee where he got permission to introduce legislation to fix the funding limit that otherwise would force Arizona public schools to cut more than $1 billion in two weeks. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

The Legislature took an initial step Monday toward overriding the cap on school spending before a looming March 1 deadline, with both chambers’ Rules committees giving unanimous consent for measures to be introduced that would suspend the limit. 

Two-thirds of both chambers will have to vote in favor of an override of the Aggregate Expenditure Limit, in order for district schools to be able to spend more than $1.1 billion they already have for this school year. If they cannot spend it, it would amount to about a 16% budget cut. The limit does not apply to charter schools, which did not exist in Arizona when the limit was approved by voters in 1980. 

The two resolutions were added to the agendas within an hour of the Rules meetings’ start. Both were approved without debate. 

Sponsored by House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Laveen, House Concurrent Resolution 2039, would authorize school districts to spend those dollars. Senate President Karen Fann, R-Prescott, and Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, are sponsoring the identical Senate Concurrent Resolution 1050 in that chamber.  

Bowers said he does not intend to tie the measure to the outcome of the Proposition 208 court case, or to issues such as empowerment scholarship account expansion or tax cuts.  

“This is a clean proposal,” he said.  

The Senate resolution got a first reading today, but neither has yet been assigned to a committee; Bowers said he may send the House version to the Ways and Means Committee. It will need two-thirds support in both the House and Senate to pass, but as a concurrent resolution the governor does not need to sign it. 

Though Prop. 208 dollars are not part of the fiscal year 2022 budget, some Republican legislators have expressed wanting to know its fate before voting. Prop. 208 is a 3.5% tax surcharge on the wealthy narrowly approved by voters in 2020. The Arizona Supreme Court largely ruled the measure unconstitutional in August 2021 but sent the case back to the trial court to answer “whether Prop. 208 revenues will exceed the expenditure limitation on local revenues.” 

Frustrated that the judge hasn’t ruled on this issue, Republican legislative leaders asked the state’s high court last week to accept special action jurisdiction and permanently enjoin Prop. 208. 

The resolutions do not address how the limit will be handled in future years, though districts are more than likely to exceed the limit in fiscal year 2023, too — even without Prop. 208 dollars. One reason is that Proposition 301 funds — which were exempted from the limit when initially passed in 2000 — was exempted when renewed for another 20 years starting in 2021. When the measure was first passed in 2000, voters exempted it from the limit. When it was renewed for another 20 years, the issue was not referred to the ballot. Prop. 301 brings in about $600 million per year. 

Phoenix Democratic Sen. Christine Marsh, a public-school teacher, filed several bills to address the aggregate expenditure limit, but none were ever assigned to a committee. She said of the new Senate bill, “If it’s similar or identical to mine, then for the schools’ sake I’m glad it’s going forward, but it’s very frustrating that a Democratic bill that was filed weeks ago didn’t see the light of day.” 

“It’s good news and hopefully we can do the right thing this week. It takes a two thirds majority.”

Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix

“It’s good news and hopefully we can do the right thing this week. It takes a two thirds majority,” said Sen. Sean Bowie, D-Phoenix, who co-authored a op-ed last week urging the legislators to do something about the aggregate expenditure limit.  

Rep. Sen. Tyler Pace, R-Mesa, signed his name to the op-ed along with Rep. Joel John, R-Buckeye, demonstrating some of the bipartisan support necessary to passing the resolution. Today, Sen. Paul Boyer, R-Glendale, said he also supports raising the aggregate expenditure limit. 

Earlier in the day, a small group of Arizona Education Association members gathered on the House lawn with a mariachi band, Valentines and cake to celebrate Arizona Statehood Day and Valentine’s Day — and to urge lawmakers to vote on overriding the limit. 

Tucson teacher Margaret Chaney, who is the president of the Tucson Education Association, said she wanted the Legislature to not only suspend the limit but also modify it permanently. 

“You really, really have to either repeal it or raise the limit. That’s just the only answer,” Chaney said. 

To make permanent changes or to rescind the limit, voters would have to approve a constitutional amendment. 

AEA Vice President Marisol Garcia said the group plans to be back next Monday, Presidents’ Day, with more teachers.  

“Teachers have that day off and (the Capitol) will be open, so we’ll be able to pack the seats upstairs; we’ll be able to meet with legislators and share what needs to happen,” Garcia said.  

She said they planned to continue to put pressure on the Legislature to pass this “patch bill,” though she said it was not a significant investment in schools. 

“This isn’t new tax money,” Garcia said. “This is money that is sitting in school budgets that has been planned for for almost a year. So, schools just want to be able to spend their money. It’s as easy as that.”

Lesko, Montenegro take spending lead in CD8 GOP primary

Debbie Lesko and Steve Montenegro, both former state senators, are the frontrunners in the special election for Arizona's 8th Congressional District.
Debbie Lesko and Steve Montenegro, both former state senators, are the front runners in the special election for Arizona’s 8th Congressional District.

While a dozen Republicans are on the ballot for the special election primary in Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, campaign spending shows the field of viable candidates is far less crowded.

Former state Sens. Debbie Lesko and Steve Montenegro have essentially ignored the other candidates, exchanging fire only with each other and dominating the spending game.

And with the February 27 special election less than two weeks away, Republican consultant Matthew Benson said he hasn’t seen an indication that someone will upset what is now a two-person race.

According to records filed with the Federal Election Commission as of February 15, about $50,000 has been pumped into independent expenditures in Lesko’s favor.

More than four times that amount was spent in support of Montenegro. Ads supporting his candidacy have surpassed $230,000. U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz’s Jobs, Freedom and Security PAC alone has contributed $150,000 of that total with ads touting Montenegro as “the son of immigrants who came here legally” and a conservative U.S. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi doesn’t want in Congress.

Lesko campaign spokesman Barrett Marson said Cruz’s support is cause for concern, “but it’ll take a lot more messaging to overcome (Montenegro’s) deficiencies.”

More than $80,000 has also been spent in opposition to Montenegro, three times more than was spent on negative IEs aimed at Lesko.

The pro-Lesko Defend US PAC has funded that front, attacking Montenegro for his support of a national popular vote and for supporting a pardon for a pastor in the country illegally.

“If how well you’re doing is measured by how many bullets they’re shooting atcha… then I guess he’s doing all right,” said Montenegro’s spokesman Constantin Querard.

And he’s not convinced ads questioning Montenegro’s stance on border security and immigration will convince anyone.

“Voters are a lot smarter than some consultants think they are. At least, that’s my hope,” Querard said.

Both candidates have also pulled ahead of the pack in terms of their own spending.

According to records filed with the Federal Communications Commission as of February 15, Lesko has spent nearly $70,000 on cable ads, with Montenegro trailing at about $30,000.

Auto-dial polls have put them within shouting distance of each other, but consultant Lisa James said the polling doesn’t matter in this election. Having operated under a short time frame, the candidates should focus instead on just getting their voters to show up, she said.

James has her money on Lesko, who she said will be rewarded for being bold at the state Legislature. She also predicted this would be “the year of the woman.”

Lesko is the only woman running in the CD8 race, and though James said that alone won’t win it for her, it’s not “a detriment to her by any stretch of the imagination.”

Consultant Chris Baker, who’s working with pro-Montenegro group National Horizon, said that’s a simplistic view of voters.

“To come to that conclusion, you have to assume that those voters are single-issue voters that are not swayed by anything,” he said. “There’s no indication that’s really a thing with voters.”

He, of course, said Montenegro stands a good chance of winning, and the negative ads coming out of the Lesko campaign are his proof.

“Two weeks out, that’s probably a good indication that something has to change in the race,” he said. “If she was leading the race running positive, my guess is she would stay positive.”

The underdogs

Former Rep. Phil Lovas and former Arizona Corporation Commissioner Bob Stump were counted among the early front runners but have since fallen behind.

According to FEC records as of February 15, no independent expenditures have been reported in support of or opposition to either of them.

Bob Stump
Bob Stump

Stump this week was under no illusions about his chances of pulling off a win, and acknowledged that the odds are better for Lesko and Montenegro.

“I’m a realist,” he said repeatedly. “They’re both better financially endowed, I suspect, than other candidates in the race. And if you follow the feeds on Twitter, most of the vitriol from other candidates and between candidates is focused upon the two of them.”

He said he knew he was at a disadvantage from the start, having been out of office for a year and absent from ballots since 2012.

“As the son of a therapist, I try not to be in denial,” he said. “The polls are what they are.”

Stump said he’ll keep up the campaign until the end, taking the opportunity to talk to voters about issues that are important to him, most notably his gospel on the country’s need to protect the electrical grid.

But Lovas’ campaign still wants more than the chance to just talk to voters.

Campaign consultant Brian Seitchik said he thinks Lovas still has a shot at representing them.

Despite what the numbers might say, Seitchik said it’s not accurate to call this a race between Lesko and Montenegro alone.

“The conventional wisdom said that Hillary Clinton was going to get elected president, and the experts were pretty clear about that,” he said. “Thankfully, we see how they were all wrong.”

He said that the roughly 34,000 ballots that have been cast so far suggest a much higher turnout “than so-called experts have predicted,” and he expects that will bode well for Lovas.

He predicted that voters who were previously “dormant” in the political process but inspired by President Trump would turn out in Lovas’ favor.

Rep. Phil Lovas (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)
Phil Lovas (Photo by Evan Wyloge/Arizona Capitol Times)

Lovas was the first state legislator to endorse Trump for the presidency and served as his statewide campaign chairman. He left his seat at the House in April to join the Trump administration in the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Office of Advocacy.

Now, Seitchik said he’s “making it clear that he’s going to be working hand-in-hand with the Trump administration” for CD8, “and he’s the only one with the credibility to do that.”

If Seitchik is right about higher than expected turnout in the primary, Benson, the GOP consultant, said that could introduce “a brand new ballgame” in Lovas’ favor. But he also wondered if Seitchik offered any evidence demonstrating that advantage.

“Ordinarily, in a campaign like this where there’s a conventional wisdom that it’s between two candidates, if you’re not one of those two but you’ve got polling suggesting that you’re more competitive than people think you are, you want to get that out,” Benson said. “I’d be shouting from the rooftops… and we haven’t seen that.”

Wrap up with Doug Ducey

Gov. Doug Ducey
Gov. Doug Ducey (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Gov. Doug Ducey faced a new conundrum this legislative session: Where to best spend available state dollars.

In the end, Ducey got nearly everything he wanted – slightly more money for teachers, a huge university bonding plan and several controversial education programs like universal vouchers and performance funding for schools.

He also flirted with the idea of negotiating with Democrats on a budget plan when Republicans initially didn’t line up to support his initiatives, though the GOP ranks eventually coalesced around his spending priorities after some pot-sweeteners came into the mix.

You seem to have struck a “compassionate conservatism” tone this year. Where is that coming from? And how much of it plays into next year’s election? What’s the impetus?

Right at the beginning, we talked about opportunity for all. And I think many of our most affluent citizens have enjoyed and experienced a lot of opportunity. So, I’m always thinking: How do we help those that are the most vulnerable, those that are on the first rung of the economic ladder, those that are in a school where they’re not learning what they should be learning? So, I think the theme has been consistent. It’s just we’re in a different position today. Three years ago, we didn’t have any money in the state. We had a one billion dollar deficit.

Was it easier to cut spending or add spending?

When you don’t have any money, the decisions are difficult, but clearer. When there are available dollars, there’s competing interests as to what people would like to do.

You signed a couple bills that led to referenda. Does that mean those were bad bills? Do you intend to defend them if they come to the ballot?

Let’s see what comes to the ballot. I think election season can be way too long. Whenever you sign a bill or veto a bill, some people are happy, some people are upset. I’d rather see what’s in front of us before I make comments on that. People are certainly welcome to participate in the constitutional process and bring things to the ballot and participate in the election cycle.

This year’s budget focused on education. Do you think the state is doing enough to fund and support education? And if not, what would enough look like?

I think the state needs to do more on education. I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish over the past two years… I think we’re definitely headed in the right direction. We also have some evidence that we’re getting results and outcomes… This is a state responsibility. This is a primary focus of this administration. It’s something the governor can lead on and it’s something we intend to do more of.

You’ve been called the education governor. What do you think of that moniker?

I wake up every day and think about education. My campaign was built on bringing our economy back and improving K-12 education and focusing on the reputation of the state. This is never going to be a box on our administration’s agenda that you can check off and move on from.

Your national profile also continues to grow, with some prominent conservatives writing about you recently. Does that mean you’re going to be leaving Arizona anytime soon?

I love Arizona, and I plan on staying in Arizona.

Forever?

Yes. I wasn’t born here, but I plan to die here. I love it. My wife is a native. I just think we live in the best state with the best quality of life… I’m thoroughly enjoying myself and trying to do my best on behalf of the citizens of the state of Arizona.

Which group is worse: out-of-state special interests that run ballot measures or trial lawyers who sue the state?

They’re equally bad.

What’s the most underrated bill that you signed this year?

I think the teacher accreditation bill is the most underrated bill that I signed this year… I think there are a lot of people with a lot of talent and experience in our state that would like to help kids at the K-12 level.

One of your vetoes, on student journalists, struck a negative chord with some. Do kids not get full First Amendment protection until they’re 18?

Kids have full protection under the First Amendment. The First Amendment applies to everyone in our country. This was a bill that, while it may have had good intentions, was written to solve a problem that happened over 20 years ago. Today, we have social media. We have Facebook. We have Twitter. We have Instagram. If a kid wants to get a message out to the student body, there’s plenty of ways for them to do that. We didn’t need to pass another law to allow them to do that.

You really like the sharing economy. Do you ever take Ubers in your real life? Or have you ever stayed at an Airbnb?

I used to take Ubers in my real life. I don’t take a lot of Uber today because I’ve got these terrific individuals from the Department of Public Safety who drive me around. But I used Uber before that. I think it provides a lot of convenience to citizens and to families. My wife is a fan of Airbnb. I’m more of a hotel guy.

Do you ever get used to people being around you or yelling at you all the time in press huddles? Because you were just a normal person before becoming governor.

I think I still am a normal person. I do my best. I will say dealing with the press has been the biggest learning curve coming from the private sector into entering public life.

I recently found out that you use emojis when you text people. What’s your favorite emoji?

I probably use the smiley face, thumbs up and American flag. They’re tied for top three.

Wrap up with Katie Hobbs

Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs
Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, led Democrats in her chamber through yet another session where the minority party tried and failed to substantively change the budget. But the Phoenix Democrat found a few reasons to be pleased with the session, while mostly remaining frustrated by Republican legislative victories.

Rate yourself as minority leader on a scale of one to 10.

I think as a caucus we stuck together on some pretty key issues. So let’s see. Eight?

Were there any highs to this session for you? Anything good you can point to?

The finger-imaging issue that we got through on the last day, that’s something I’ve worked on for all seven years I’ve been here. It’s kind of a really nuanced thing, it creates a barrier for people that need these benefits, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) and SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). And folks that were invested in keeping it there talk about reducing fraud — there’s really no evidence that it did. So really it’s going to help people that need benefits get it more quickly, and hopefully move them off poverty more quickly.

Was there a worst moment?

There’s so many to choose from! For sure the voucher bill. It’s unfathomable to me that the same folks, the bill I just talked about, people wanting fraud prevention — there’s little to no accountability or ways to prevent fraud in this program. We’re giving taxpayer dollars to individuals to send their children to private religious schools. Why is that OK? And that’s not even touching how it is working to dismantle public education. So it’s a huge problem.

You had a new Senate president to work with this year, so who’s your favorite: Steve Yarbrough or Andy Biggs?

Oh, that is not a fair question! I’m not going to say favorite. I’ll say they both have very different leadership styles. There are different things that I appreciate about both of them.

What were some of the differences?

This is not a slam towards President Biggs, but I feel like I got straighter answers from President Yarbrough. So that’s not to say President Biggs was dishonest. He would just give me more of a runaround answer on certain things.

This budget did see an increase in spending overall, including in areas Democrats have fought for, like education. Are there any positives you can find in the budget?

I was happy to see the commitment towards investing more in universities. That ended up being kind of an ugly fight. In the beginning it was pitting cities and towns versus universities. And really, kind of the way it played out, it ended up pitting K-12 versus universities. And that’s really, really unfortunate. But I am glad that there was a commitment to reinvest, though certainly not making up for the $99 million cut that was made a few years ago. I know the Governor’s Office just wants to tout over and over again, “We increased spending on K-12.” But these are the same folks who talk about you can’t solve every problem just by throwing money at it, and we’re not going to fix education just by spending money, but they are spending money in areas that it’s not needed. To me, that’s just throwing dollars at the problem to say that you did. So sure, if you want me to say more money was spent on education, I will say that. But I will continue to say I don’t think it’s in the right areas for the right priorities.

What did you mean when you said university bonding was pitted against K-12?

Our strategy was, they needed Democratic votes for this bill until they didn’t. So we pushed for bigger teacher raises, and when it comes down to it, the folks who ended up voting against the bill, they weren’t voting against universities. But if you look at the needs we continue to have in K-12, this was a bill to allow the universities to bond, we continually attack the school boards, the school districts’ ability to do the same thing. And there’s still a ton of needs that are left on the table for K-12.

Was that a missed negotiating opportunity? There was a long time when Republicans lacked the votes to approve bonding.

What you saw happen was the Democrats stuck together with a unified request. If you asked every individual Democrat, they would’ve told you the same answer: Teacher raises and TANF. I think the price tag on that was more than (Republicans) wanted. So for them it was less expensive to buy off Republicans individually.

Was that a take it or leave it proposal? Were you willing to negotiate?

They weren’t willing to go there. We offered them a proposal. When you’re negotiating, your proposal is not always your final offer, and it never got to the point of anything past, “This is our proposal.” That was on them and not on us. Because we were willing to negotiate. The fact that we showed that we’re willing to work with the majority on this issue, and that we stuck together as a caucus, I think set a tone for future issues where they need Democratic support. But it’s going to depend on the issue they need Democratic support for, that they can’t get other Republicans on. I think what’s clear is that when the Governor’s Office says they want a bipartisan something or other, what it means is, “We tell you how it’s going to be, and (Democrats) vote for it.”

What happened with the final bonding vote? Your caucus was united, but when the vote happened, Democrats split.

It was clear that either they were going to have the votes or they were going to call our bluff. What we talked about as a caucus was, we weren’t going to give them the 16th vote. But if it was clear that it was passing, that we should vote our conscience. So that’s what you saw there… Nobody wanted to vote against the universities. It made it really difficult. I kept reminding members, we have three goals here: Expand funding for universities; give teachers a meaningful raise, and restore TANF without a whole lot of strings. That was kind of the mantra that we kept.

Wrap up with Rebecca Rios

House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios
House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios (D-Phoenix) (Photo by Rachel Leingang/Arizona Capitol Times)

In her first year as House Democratic leader, Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, a longtime lawmaker, was hopeful that her caucus could take a rare vote in favor of a GOP-backed budget. But when the budget didn’t go far enough toward investing in Arizona’s teachers, House Democrats held true to their beliefs and their promises, and voted against the budget package. That in itself was a big accomplishment, Rios said, noting that Senate Democrats eventually caved to political pressure and gave Ducey a bipartisan victory on his budget.

When we spoke at the beginning of the session, you said you’d consider this year a success if House Democrats supported the budget. That didn’t happen. So how would you characterize this session for House Democrats?

It was a letdown. We had high hopes following the governor’s State of the State address, and in large part, those were dashed when we saw his budget four days later. But I still hoped that there would be opportunities for us to work with the governor, particularly because we didn’t have these huge deficits and there wouldn’t be a lot of cutting. And he had indicated his number one issue was education and had a dozen ideas. In the final analysis, it was a failure, and I think most of the public would also say it was a letdown.

You even met with Gov. Doug Ducey to try to negotiate on the budget. How’d that go?

We took it upon ourselves to call and approach the governor on the top issue Democrats had, increasing teacher pay. I called, and a few days later, he called back and we met briefly. I was very honest in saying it was one issue, there’s no game-playing, no list, this is our request, and we’d like to help. And he was very nice, but was non-committal. But in the end, it’s politics. It’s a meeting for show. You can get Republicans to fall in line if they think the governor is going to work with Democrats. That’s part of the game. I’ve been around long enough to know that’s just for show. But that’s unfortunate because it could have been two feathers in his cap–one for really investing in education substantially, and one for having a true bipartisan budget.

What’d you think about some of your Senate counterparts? They put up that big show saying they weren’t voting for the university bonding package unless there was more money for teacher pay in the budget, then voted for it anyway. I think they even put out a press release beforehand saying, essentially, no way no how.

I signed that press release. I can’t speak for them. All I can say is I’m very proud of our caucus for holding firm on that conviction that we could have and should have done more for education. Although we all support universities, that wasn’t the number one priority for education. So I’m very proud of the Democratic caucus in the House for really standing behind their convictions and doing what they said they would do.

You seem to have a pretty good relationship with Republican leaders, and at the same time, you’re very vocal in your criticism of them. How do you balance those two things?

You have to separate the policy from the personalities. I think that’s what I’ve been able to distinguish that maybe I wasn’t able to do so well 20 years ago as a freshman. I think you can personalize these people’s policies, and then you start to believe they are what their policies are. I think over time I’ve recognized that we’re all here believing we have the best intentions. Nobody comes here out of a desire to be evil. So if I go strong in floor speeches, it’s always based on the content, the issue, the ramifications. I try not to personalize it.

House Democrats were louder this year than in past years. You had people speaking out on the floor a lot and, especially, the freshmen were really stepping up in a way most freshmen don’t. Was that something Dem leadership encouraged?

I can’t take credit for that. We have a very energetic, articulate, progressive group of freshmen. We literally had more freshmen than returning members in our caucus. And they all had some sort of background in politics or pushing progressive issues. So they really hit the ground running and were ready to stand up and fight for what they wanted. There was none of that learning on the job, or watching to see what their place would be. They jumped right in. We had a very assertive group of freshmen legislators this year.

Do you feel these sub-appropriations committees that (Speaker J.D.) Mesnard revived this year actually gave Democrats more of a role in the budget, or were Dems just as sidelined in sub-appropriations committees as they were in the Appropriations Committee?

I think it gave Democrats opportunities to ask more questions, get more information and have more of a voice in the public process. But the reality is the final budget is not one that’s determined publicly in those committees. It continues to be determined behind the scenes in the last few weeks in small groups. And Democrats were not a part of that process, which is where the true budget-making occurs. We were invited into a couple meetings with the chairs of the sub committees, but again, it was an opportunity for the Republicans to let us know what was on the table, and allow us to pick from a menu of items what we would like if we had the opportunity to fill a box. I appreciate the gesture but I don’t think it was anything of real substance in terms of actually letting us into the dealmaking on the budget.

What was the worst bill of the session?

Oh my. I think there were a few bad bills. I was happy to see that the speaker didn’t even allow a hearing on a couple of the worst bills, including the riot bill and the social justice bill. There were a couple of those that I think prior administrations would have allowed to go through the process, and they would have been public embarrassments in the newspapers.  And I think this speaker was astute enough to see we didn’t need to bring that embarrassment on the chamber.

In your years at the Capitol, had you ever seen a daytime sine die before this?

Not that I recall. I remember walking out of this place during the daytime and thinking “gosh this is boring” in like the 1990s. But for the most part, if we walked out of here in the daytime hours, it was because we had been here all night and we were leaving in the morning. Yeah, it’s kind of anticlimactic. It’s boring.