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What the Devil won't tell you

Ducey's '18 agenda includes a bunch to think about, but money required

Budget will tell if governor's State of State address signals halt to slashing and burning

I watched Gov. Doug Ducey's State of the State address expecting it to hear right-wing boiler plate agitating against any and all social progress secured during the past century.

Then I saw a governor laying out an agenda that included some interesting stuff missing just one thing: A financial commitment.

Ducey is an easy target for non-conservatives but a lot of what he discussed deserves a fair hearing. Teacher raises, extending welfare assistance for recipients actively seeking work and helping inmates prepare for the life on the outside are all worthy. They are just less than real yet.

We can't pan or praise the Guv until he releases his budget Friday and puts dollars to the commitments he made Monday.

To be sure, Ducey's speech included some arch-right red meat. He railed against the U.S. 9th Circuit Court as a judicial check on Ducey's most ideological policies and now he wants Congress to remove the state from its jurisdiction. He asked for more deregulation.

He even made a pretty outrageous statement about the federal government ruining everything it touches. That's an odd thing to say to a state full of retirees enjoying their Social Security and Medicare. I'm sure other states would love to have Arizona's military installations and public works projects, and maybe some of our national parks.

No matter. Ducey's third State of the State address was his least ideological and that's good news for those who don't fall in lock step with his fundamentalism.

By far the most welcome news for public policy pragmatists turned out to be Ducey's continued push on behalf of schools.

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Pat on the back

Ducey spent the first 20 minutes of his hour-long address laying out a legislative agenda full of targeted investments to help schools and those who are having a hard go of it in today's economy.

He has seemed to catch a case of K-12 religion, with interesting ideas like changing licensing requirements for teachers and student loan forgiveness. He unveiled a 15-point plan to address Arizona school funding. Included in that plan, was a move to devote the bulk of any state surplus to Arizona's public schools.

The licensing requirement is particularly important in a state with a teacher shortage and skilled folks facing long-term unemployment or under-employed. They may make great teachers but the licensing requirement could cost money they don't have and take time they can't spare. Creative ways to connect smart folks to kids are worth exploring.

Ducey also may have a specific kind of "public" school in mind. What kind of balance will he seek between neighborhood public schools and taxpayer-backed charter schools? That's a matter of priorities and the budget is the document of priorities.

My favorite idea, was the “Grandma Stipend,” to help extended family members care for nieces, nephews and grand kids rather than straight-up child care. A state with so many transplants may not have extended family at the ready but it's an interesting idea.

See? I can be magnanimous.

Starting in a hole

But remember, there is a difference telling the cameras you care about an issue and addressing a challenge in a meaningful way. So the details of Ducey's plan matter most and we won't know that until Friday, when the governor promises to release his FY 2018 budget plan.

Yeah, yeah, I hear ya. I'm a typical liberal wanting more of your taxpayer dollars stolen for the benefit of strangers. Let's be clear. We're talking about Arizona and not the People's Republic of Vermont.

Today, even after Prop. 123 sunk state land trust money into primary and secondary education, Arizona ranks 49th nationally in per-pupil spending. That's according to the last U.S. Census report and the projected revenue the ballot measure generated.

The governor and Legislature have used state control of “welfare” (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) to all but eliminate the program. It's now just available for 1 year over the course of a lifetime. During the 1996 battles over welfare reform, the idea of a five-year lifetime limit was considered radical.

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The state's weekly unemployment insurance payment is the second-lowest in the country and Ducey even tried to cut off medical coverage for the unemployed.

Arizona's public university system has seen the biggest cuts in the country.

According to Kiplinger's, Arizona's tax laws are the 5th least burdensome in the country. Alaska and Wyoming rank ahead of Arizona and those states get their money from oil. Theoretically.

Making our wealth transfer programs more akin to Texas than some third-world hell hole doesn't mean that we're reinventing ourselves as Sweden. We're not sitting in New Jersey getting mugged by Paulie Walnuts and Big Pussy making the collection rounds on behalf of Trenton. We are talking about a state with weak institutions to start with, facing such lousy finances that its been forced to cut and cut and cut more.

Well, this year may be different and some of that money may be restored to Jan Brewer levels.

Speculation and psychoanalysis

Speaking of Sweden, I have to confess to some Stockholm Syndrome as I start to identify with our captors/duly elected leaders. I get that. It's like, if the guards backed out of chainsawing your leg off and instead opted to just punch you in the face. Who wouldn't be grateful?

Ducey's rhetoric, at the very least, is a sign of hope that Republican determination to destroy the social safety not and set fire to the social contract may have run its course.

I have absolutely zero proof of this, but here's what I think is happening: I think Ducey is running around talking to corporate site selectors who Google search Arizona and freak the hell out. State lawmakers in their legislative echo chamber seem to think it good family fun to tear out with their teeth the veins of public compassion. California businesses get grossed out at the metaphorical site of the Legislature's bloody jowls and confused faces looking up from the state's poor and working class.

It's like in the scene in the first Jurassic Park, where Richard Attenborough is giving Sam Neil, Jeff Goldblum and Laura Dern a tour. They happen on the velociraptor pen just as they lower the cow down into the flora. Ducey is John Hammond forcing a smile as the legislative raptors devour the state budget … “yeah, they do that.”

The Legislature, god love them, are true believers and ideologically consistent. Donald Trump makes me appreciate that about the state House and Senate.

Maybe — just maybe — business wants to see less of that to convince themselves moving to Arizona is not leaving the Industrial World.

Maybe — just maybe — Ducey is rallying his kinder angels on behalf of teachers and those continuing to struggle.

Whatever the case, praising or panning Ducey's speech is just guesswork until the governor releases his budget, but there's reason to think the GOP bosses in Phoenix may do something other than slashing and burning.

We gotta see the numbers first. A budget is policy. A speech is rhetoric.

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Governor's Office

Ducey delivers his State of the State speech Monday.