In an unprecedented State of the State address, given remotely for the first time in Arizona history, Gov. Doug Ducey pledged new — though vague — action to help Arizonans who are struggling economically and students who are struggling educationally as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on.
The governor’s speech, by far the shortest of his seven State of the State addresses at about 22 minutes long and delivered from his office rather than the floor of the House of Representatives because of COVID-19, didn’t lay out much in the way of concrete policy proposals for the 2021 legislative session.
He vowed action to help Arizonans with two aspects of life under the pandemic that many have struggled with — their pocketbooks and their children’s educations — but was light on details, many of which will likely come later in the week when he unveils his budget proposal for the next fiscal year. And he called for students to return to the classroom rather than continue with the distance learning that has been prevalent since the pandemic forced schools to close their doors in March.
Though he warned that the pandemic has yet to run its course, he looked ahead to what he described as a year of recovery, with vaccinations promising an eventual end to the emergency that has dominated life across the state and around the world.
“We should take encouragement where we find it, starting with the breakthrough that will change everything. If last year was the year of the virus, this year will be the year of the vaccine,” Ducey said.
While vaccinations continue, Ducey again shut the door to new restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus, even as Arizona continues to break records for spread of the illness and is a worldwide hotspot. Too many Arizonans have struggled to make ends meet during the pandemic, the governor said, noting that many people don’t have the opportunity of working remotely and must show up in person at work to make a living.
“If we’re really all in this together, then we have to appreciate that for many families, ‘lockdown’ doesn’t spell inconvenience. It spells catastrophe — zero income, inability to make a payment, eviction, foreclosure, and real personal anguish,” Ducey said.
Ducey was equally resistant to the idea of ending his emergency declaration, an idea that some GOP lawmakers hope to force upon him this session through a proposed resolution sponsored by Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, and Rep. Bret Roberts, R-Maricopa.
“Some have asked, why not end the public health emergency? It’s simple: because we are in a public health emergency. I’ve been entrusted by the people of Arizona with this responsibility,” Ducey said, following with a shot at mayors like Phoenix’s Kate Gallego and Tucson’s Regina Romero, who have repeatedly called on him to impose stricter measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“I’m not going to hand over the keys to a small group of mayors who have expressed every intention of locking down their cities,” he said.
The governor also took aim at school districts and teachers that have resisted a return to in-person learning at K-12 schools, or have returned to distance learning as COVID-19 savages the state.
Ducey lamented that many students are missing out on irreplaceable educational experience and said many have fared poorly with distance learning, which he said has exacerbated long-term disparities in K-12 education for low-income and non-white students. He noted that teachers have been prioritized in the state’s COVID-19 vaccination plans.
“With every public-health professional, from Dr. Fauci and the CDC on down, saying that the safest place for kids to be is in school, we will not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure. Children still need to learn, even in a pandemic,” Ducey said.
But despite the worries of Democratic lawmakers and public education advocates, the Ducey administration said the governor isn’t looking to pull funding from K-12 schools that stick with distance learning.
For those students who have fallen behind during the pandemic, Ducey proposed increased funding for summer school, longer school days, one-on-one targeted instruction and tutoring. And the many parents who have found “temporary education options” for their children should be able to make those options permanent, the governor said, though he didn’t elaborate on what policies he might propose to make this happen.
On the economic front, Ducey’s recovery agenda could help him achieve an elusive goal he’s pursued since he first took office in 2015.
Ducey campaigned for governor in 2014 on a platform of reducing Arizona’s income tax rates “as close to zero as possible.” But while he has made minor tax cuts each year he’s been in office — another campaign promise — fiscal reality has barred the way to major income tax changes.
In his State of the State address, Ducey urged lawmakers to work with him to lower taxes. He didn’t specify exactly what taxes he would cut, but told the legislature, “On tax reform, let’s think big.”
Ducey also listed a handful of other agenda items for the new session that were unrelated to the ongoing pandemic, including modernizing the state’s tribal gaming compact, which expires in 2023, expanding access to broadband internet and telemedicine, improving the state’s roads and bridge
For Democratic lawmakers and other public education advocates, Ducey’s comments about funding empty seats in schools struck a nerve.
Senate Minority Leader Rebecca Rios, D-Phoenix, said she interpreted Ducey’s comments as a “veiled threat” to withhold funding from school districts that continue to rely on distance learning.
“At the end of the day, these are schools that are providing distance learning in an effort to keep their teachers, the children and the families or both safe, and yet I’m hearing that he’s considering penalizing schools for practicing safe distance learning. And that was very disheartening to hear. I hope I understood that wrong,” Rios said.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman said Ducey’s speech “ignored the reality of the worsening spread of COVID-19.”
“In the face of enormous hardship and loss, teachers and schools have gone above and beyond to ensure students’ learning continues amid school facility closures. To say otherwise — without a commitment to fund distance learning — contributes to the toxic environment where teachers, board members, and superintendents are harassed for making data-driven decisions,” Hoffman said in a statement provided to the Arizona Mirror.
On Monday, teachers in Peoria called in sick to protest a return to in-person instruction, forcing some schools to shut down.
Ducey’s aides said the governor isn’t looking to strip funding from schools that continue using remote learning, but that he’s committed to not funding empty seats in schools and that funding will follow students if their parents go with different options.
“He means we will be funding the school that parents chose for their kids. If they move their kid to another public school, the money will follow the student. They won’t be double counted,” Daniel Scarpinato, Ducey’s chief of staff, said on Twitter.
The administration did not elaborate on how that would differ from current school funding laws.
Chris Kotterman, a lobbyist for the Arizona School Boards Association, said the governor’s comments don’t bode well for the continuation of federally funded stabilization grants that schools have received to make up for the loss of funding from declining enrollment amid the pandemic.
Republican lawmakers were bullish about Ducey’s comments on tax cuts. Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, was encouraged by the governor’s call to “go big” on tax reform, and said he hopes that means major action on income taxes, especially following the passage of Proposition 208, which imposes a new 3.5-percent income tax surcharge on individuals who earn at least $250,000 per year.
“If he wants to go big, we’ve got some big ideas. I look forward to learning his big ideas,” Mesnard said.
Mesnard said he liked some of the broad ideas that Ducey voiced in his speech, but is waiting to see the details, which were sparse.
“We didn’t get into a lot of specifics on his priorities, so that remains to be seen. But as a high-level speech it was fine,” he said.
Ugenti-Rita, a vocal critic of the business restrictions Ducey enacted to combat COVID-19, wasn’t persuaded by the governor’s warning that cities could levy their own, harsher restrictions if his emergency declaration is rescinded. She noted that the legislature could pass preemption legislation, a favored tool used by Ducey in the past to bar cities from enacting policies he opposes, that would limit the ability of municipalities to issue their own restrictions.
“He knows the drill. There’s a way to manage municipalities and counties that step out of line and go too far,” Ugenti-Rita said. “We can’t not do our job because we’re afraid the cities might do something worse. We’ll address that on a case-by-case basis when it presents itself. And we can certainly be prepared with draft legislation waiting in the wings.”
However, Rep. John Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican, was more receptive to the measure. Kavanagh asked legislative attorneys and the Attorney General’s Office for an opinion on what might happen if the legislature repeals the emergency declaration, including whether cities and counties would be allowed to pursue their own, stricter measures. Legislative Council has told him that local government entities would indeed be able to enact their own restrictions that could go further than Ducey’s policies, he said.
“I think us ending the governor’s emergency declaration will backfire and result in far more stringent regulations in most of Arizona,” Kavanagh said.
Though Democrats were wary of Ducey’s comments on distance learning, his call for new tax cuts and his continued resistance to new anti-COVID restrictions, House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding, D-Phoenix, said he hoped Ducey was being earnest when he spoke of working with lawmakers from both parties.
One area where Bolding thought the governor and Democrats might be able to work together was criminal justice reform. Ducey has often voiced skepticism about reform proposals, telling the Mirror last week that his top priority was public safety and that he wouldn’t support any reform proposals that would jeopardize that. Yet the governor made a point of mentioning the issue in his speech.
Bolding said there’s a lot of bipartisan support for criminal justice reform, noting that Rep. Walt Blackman, R-Snowflake, is chairing a new committee dedicated to the issue.
“We believe that’s one real opportunity where we can see some bipartisan support,” Bolding said. “We hope that he joins the Democrats and fights for criminal justice reform, because what we know is that this is an area that we can really solve a lot of problems that are affecting so many communities right now.”