When the legislature convenes for the 2021 session, among Gov. Doug Ducey’s top priorities will be helping Arizona repair much of the damage that the COVID-19 pandemic wrought over the past year.
The coronavirus outbreak will undoubtedly dominate the upcoming session, which begins on Monday with the swearing in of new lawmakers and Ducey’s State of the State address, which will be delivered digitally for the first time. Managing the ongoing pandemic will be the governor’s top priority, he told the Arizona Mirror in an interview on Friday.
Also at the top of Ducey’s agenda is reviving the soaring economy that tanked in March when the novel coronavirus outbreak escalated to the level of a pandemic, and Arizona, along with much of the rest of the world, began shutting down to curb the spread.
“When Arizona headed into the pandemic we were among the leading states in the nation in terms of economic growth and personal income rising. And as we come out of the pandemic, we still have our strengths. We just have some catching up to do,” Ducey said. “I’m going to be focused on growing our economy because I think if we can grow our economy we provide jobs and income and raises and opportunities for people.”
The governor was light on details, many of which will likely come in his State of the State address on Monday, but he said the economy was Arizona’s strength, “and I intend to play to our strengths.”
Though Arizona is breaking new records for new COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations on a regular basis, there is reason for hope. Vaccinations against the disease have begun. Ducey wants Arizona to be among the best states in the country for administering vaccines — the state, like most others, has struggled in the early weeks of its vaccination program — which he said will help resolve many of the other issues that have afflicted the state as the pandemic stretches into its 11th month.
“Once you get beyond COVID-19 and vaccination distribution, I think most people are concerned about their kids and what they’ve lost during the pandemic in terms of education. They’re concerned about their own jobs and careers and small businesses. And that’s going to be where much of the focus is on this legislative session and the State of the State address,” Ducey said.
During a question-and-answer session with Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry CEO Glenn Hamer on Friday, Ducey said his top priority is dealing with the pandemic, including vaccinations. After that comes state revenue and budget issues. Revenues have exceeded the pessimistic projections from early in the pandemic, and are up 16.5% from the previous year, despite the economic slump caused by the pandemic, according to legislative budget analysts.
After that, Ducey said the biggest issue among states going into the new year will be who can bring back jobs the fastest. And no state is better positioned than Arizona, he said.
Ducey also said wants to focus on making up for lost time in the K-12 system. The 2019-20 school year was cut short by the pandemic, and many school districts have returned to distance learning as the outbreak has worsened.
“We catch our kids up on education, which is what is needed and necessary right now,” Ducey told Hamer.
When it comes to curbing the spread of COVID-19, Ducey indicated that he doesn’t plan to change course. He’s strongly rejected calls for new restrictions, such as business shutdowns or limits on private gatherings. He noted that restaurants are still limited by executive order to 50% capacity, while gyms are limited to 25% and large public gatherings are limited. Asked if he’s planning new restrictions, Ducey told the Mirror, “We’re going to maintain the mitigation steps that we have.”
Ducey said he wants to also focus on problems that were exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, citing issues like depression, addiction, alcoholism, mental health, isolation, domestic violence, child abuse and suicide.
“These are all things that I think we need to talk about in the totality of public health and how we help people get back on their feet and get the attention and care that they need as we come out of this,” he said.
The governor was less keen to patch holes in the state’s social safety net that were highlighted by the pandemic. For example, he shrugged off a suggestion — as he has numerous times in the past — that Arizona should increase its unemployment benefits. The $240 per month that Arizona offers is the second lowest in the county, behind only Mississippi, which provides $235 per month.
The new legislative session is expected to be more contentious than the last. Many Republican lawmakers are itching to roll back the restrictions Ducey has put in place to combat the coronavirus outbreak, and the recent turmoil surrounding the 2020 presidential election, including a violent mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday after being incited by President Donald Trump, has generated acrimony between Republicans.
Republicans hold slim majorities of 31-29 in the House of Representatives and 16-14 in the Senate, meaning the GOP can’t afford to lose a single member on a party-line vote. That may make it difficult for Ducey or Republican leadership to get much done.
But Ducey was optimistic that the slim Republican majorities wouldn’t be a hindrance, and said he hopes to work with the Democrats as well as the Republicans.
“Among some folks there’s some negativity or concern that we can’t get things done because the margins are so slim. This isn’t Washington, D.C. I met today with legislative leadership from both sides of the aisle,” Ducey told Hamer. “I’m confident there’s a lot of things that we can do and focus on what the people of Arizona need. So I have a lot of confidence that we’re going to have a positive and successful session.”