If criminal justice reform advocates hope the 2020 legislative session will lead to more success than the disappointing 2019 session, they’ve got their work cut out for them, as Gov. Doug Ducey says the scope of reforms he’s open to are far more limited than what they’re seeking.
“I come at criminal justice reform with a heart first and foremost for the victims,” Ducey told Arizona Mirror in a Jan. 9 interview previewing his 2020 agenda and state of the state speech, which he’ll give to the legislature on Jan. 13.
Arizona has some of the strictest sentencing laws in the nation. The Grand Canyon State’s “truth in sentencing” law, passed in 1993 amid a national push for tough-on-crime laws that kept prisoners behind bars longer, requires inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.
Reform advocates on the left and the right have made changing those laws a top priority. But their efforts last year accomplished little, and resulted in the biggest reform legislation to win approval from lawmakers being vetoed by Ducey at the behest of prosecutors.
Already, there are efforts for 2020 to push substantial sentencing reform, both at the Capitol and at the ballot box.
“I believe that people have gone through the justice system, they’re in prison, they’re going to serve their time and and pay their debt,” Ducey said.
The governor is unlikely to support major changes to “truth in sentencing,” but left the door open to the concept of allowing prisoners to “buy down their time” if they have good behavior and take steps to rehabilitate themselves while incarcerated.
“Is there a way that we could put together a system where they could basically buy their time down, because they’re demonstrating that they’re gonna make better decisions upon release?” Ducey said. “That’s something that I think could be a good idea, and also could free a lot of resources up to our state prisons.”
But as he has been in the past, Ducey said he is more focused on reducing recidivism than reducing the number of people incarcerated. In particular, he said he is “open-minded” to reforms dealing with addiction and mental health issues, “because I don’t think the prison incarceration is the best way to deal with those two issues.”
Ducey didn’t discuss specifics of his plan to combat those issues, but said his administration is focusing on reforms in those areas that go beyond the criminal justice system.
Ducey also questioned the need for expansive reforms to sex education in Arizona schools, a priority issue for Republican lawmakers like House Speaker Rusty Bowers, R-Mesa, and Sen. Sylvia Allen, R-Snowflake.
Allen this month introduced legislation that bars students from taking sex ed courses until seventh grade. Among numerous restrictions, the measure also prohibits discussions of homosexuality in any context in the courses and allows parents to sue schools for failing to follow the new sex ed regulations.
Allen has said she will amend the bill to remove the portion that strikes homosexuality from the list of allowed topics of discussion.
The bill is already scheduled for a hearing on Jan. 14, the second day of the legislative session, in the Senate Education Committee, which Allen chairs.
Arizona law currently allows schools to develop “age-appropriate” sex ed curriculum for students of all ages, and parents must opt in to the classes. But Republican lawmakers have for months been railing about sex ed instruction in the state, and have accused Democratic Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman and schools of using pornographic materials to teach sex to elementary school students.
Ducey said his three sons all took sex ed classes when they were in grade school that used state-approved standards, and he saw nothing alarming about the courses.
“I don’t know exactly what the problem is people are trying to solve here,” he said.
If parents aren’t happy with the sex ed curriculum at their student’s school, they already have ways to address it: “They have school choice in Arizona, and I think they also have the option to opt their kids out of (the classes).”
Ducey remains opposed to plans, both in the legislature and from outside groups, to increase taxes to boost spending on K-12 education in Arizona.
Such proposals are “unnecessary, because we’re going to increase funding for K-12 education” in the budget this year, he said.
However, Ducey wouldn’t say how much new spending he plans to propose for education or how it would be structured. Critics in previous years have said too much of the funding increases for public schools comes in the form of results-based funding, which doesn’t help the schools that are the most underfunded.
“We’ve put $4.5 billion (into education) since I came into office – and wait ’til you see what we have on budget release,” he said.
He said K-12 funding will be a major component of what he termed “targeted, responsible, focused spending” increases that will focus largely on programs that have been “neglected” as the state recovered from the Great Recession – and the multibillion-dollar budget deficits it caused – over the past decade.
Infrastructure spending will be a core piece of the plan to use an estimated $750 million budget surplus, Ducey said. Chief among the proposals will be addressing how much money the state takes from the Highway User Revenue Fund to pay for other parts of government. HURF, as it’s known in government parlance, is the gas tax account that supports roadway maintenance and construction.
Since 2001, more than $1.1 billion has been diverted from HURF, and Ducey said the effects of raiding the fund has been more pronounced in rural parts of the state than in the urban centers of Maricopa and Pima counties.
More broadly speaking, Ducey said he supports plans by GOP legislative leaders to tackle the budget quickly.
“We want to be quick, but we don’t want to hurry,” he said. “I’ve sometimes been known for brevity, and if we can move through the the budget session more quickly, I’m all for it.”
Ducey also hinted that he may tell lawmakers not to send any legislation to his desk until the budget is done. Senate President Karen Fann told Arizona Capitol Times that she was considering placing a moratorium on non-budget bills in her chamber to speed up the budget deliberations.
“I’m going to help her with that,” the governor told the Mirror.
As cities like Sedona are grappling with the effects of a 2016 law that bars cities and counties from regulating short-term vacation rentals, like those popularized by companies including Airbnb and VRBO, Ducey says he is standing behind the law.
Roughly 1 in 5 houses in Sedona are used as short-term vacation rentals, driving up rental costs for residents and creating an affordable housing crisis in a city that is a popular tourist destination.
But Ducey said he is unaware of any problems created by the law – a reversal of a position he took last August, when he told Capitol Media Services that the law may have had unintended consequences, including allowing real estate speculators to buy homes in large quantities solely to turn them into short-term rentals.
Ducey at the time advocated only small changes to the law.
He told the Mirror that he hasn’t heard a single complaint about the law, except from reporters.
“A citizen is yet to ask me about it,” he said.
Rather than overhaul the 2016 law, which he championed, Ducey said complaints about short-term rentals should “be solved by the HOA structures” in local communities. There are roughly 9,000 homeowners associations in Arizona. In 2018, about half of the homeowners in metro Phoenix lived in an HOA.