As Hobbs called for collaboration, some Arizona Republicans literally turned their backs
Gov. Katie Hobbs called for collaboration between Republicans and Democratic lawmakers during her first state of the state speech Monday, but the challenges facing her new administration were on full display, as some Republicans turned their backs on her and others walked out of the room to show how they felt about her policy plans.
In her address to the first joint session of Arizona’s 56th Legislature, whose members were sworn in earlier that day, Hobbs echoed many of the themes she focused on during her inauguration speech last week. She pounded home the point home that her “door is open” to both Republican and Democratic lawmakers who want to make positive changes in Arizona.
“Let’s work together to make a significant impact in the lives of the families and communities of this state today and for years to come by lowering costs, investing in public education, securing our water future, tackling the affordable housing crisis and other real issues that are holding back too many,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs touched on some of the most pressing issues facing the state, like the aggregate expenditure limit or AEL, that public schools are expected to hit in March, preventing them from spending a collective $1.3 billion necessary to keep schools running.
Republican Rep. David Cook has already introduced a resolution that will override the limit that Hobbs described as “outdated.” The limit was approved by voters in 1980, and requires legislative approval for an override.
Last year’s legislative session began with a similar school spending crisis, but legislators lifted the cap after prolonged negotiations. And last summer, Republicans promised as part of budget negotiations to override the limit after they approved a record education spending budget, but then-Gov. Doug Ducey refused to call a legislative session to do so.
Many Democratic lawmakers stood and cheered Hobbs’ call to increase the AEL, while Republicans remained seated.
In a response video to Hobbs’ address, Arizona Senate Majority Leader Sonny Borrelli and House Majority Leader Leo Biasiucci promised that they would address the AEL, but said they refused to take hasty action on the issue.
“We will not be sidetracked or bullied by political games,” Borrelli said.
If lawmakers don’t act by March, schools will be forced to cut more than $1.3 billion in the final two months of the school year. School administrators have said such cuts would lead to sweeping layoffs, and likely would force a large number of schools to close.
Hobbs also railed against the legislature’s massive expansion of school vouchers last year, which she said lacks accountability and “will likely bankrupt the state.” The program was estimated to cost about $30 million this year, but current projections based on new enrollments in the program peg the number at more than $330 million — and growing.
She claimed that it will cost the state an estimated $1.5 billion over the next decade, and added that any school that accepts taxpayer dollars should have to abide by the same accountability standards as public schools. Hobbs acknowledged during a press conference after the speech that implementing accountability measures for schools that receive voucher funding would be difficult to accomplish with the Republican majority in the legislature.
To deal with the state’s shortage of educators, which she said is better defined as a retention crisis, Hobbs announced plans to launch an Educator Retention Task Force. Around 2,500 teaching positions in the state are currently vacant.
“There are too many amazing professionals who have walked away from the career they love because of the uncompetitive salaries, onerous policies, and unfunded mandates this state has chosen to implement that rob educators of the joy of teaching,” Hobbs said. “Teachers are creating the workforce and leaders of tomorrow, and it’s time we started treating them with the respect they deserve.”
Hobbs’ administration also aims to fund Arizona schools fairly, saying her budget, to be released on Friday, will include historic investments in schools to address capital needs.
At present, the state distributes extra public school funding based on each school’s achievement, which has mostly resulted in that funding going disproportionately to wealthy areas in Maricopa and Pima counties.
The Hobbs administration plans to redirect $68.6 million in achievement-based dollars to all schools, instead of just those with the best test scores. Hobbs also urged prioritizing the hiring of more social workers and counselors to deal with the mental health crisis among young Arizonans.
In addition, Hobbs plans to expand the Arizona Promise Scholarship Program to help up to 14,000 students afford college and to allocate $40 million to create the Promise for DREAMers Scholarship Program to provide financial help to undocumented students.
As Democratic lawmakers applauded Hobbs’ education agenda, Republican Sens. Justine Wadsack and Anthony Kern stood and turned their backs to the governor. Earlier, GOP Reps. Rachel Jones, Alexander Kolodin and Jacqueline Parker walked out of the speech. Midway through the speech, Rep. Jake Hoffman exited the House floor.
“It’s unfortunate that some members chose an immature stunt instead, but we have really tough issues in front of us and we need to work together to stop them,” Hobbs said during a news conference after the speech.
Hobbs said she remained optimistic about the two parties’ ability to work together.
Hobbs promised to work with the business community to ensure it continues to thrive, but to also help potential workers at those businesses who are being priced out of the local housing and rental markets.
“Three Arizona cities — Tucson, Mesa, and Phoenix — have seen some of the highest rent increases in the nation,” Hobbs said. “The number of individuals experiencing homelessness has risen significantly in recent years. We can do better. Let’s work together to ensure that here in Arizona, any person who wants to achieve the American Dream or have a safe roof over their head can do so.”
Hobbs promised to help solve these issues by investing $150 million into the state’s Housing Trust Fund this year, and said her administration had already signed an executive order re-establishing the Interagency and Community Council on Homelessness and Housing.
When the staunchly pro-choice governor made a promise that her administration would protect reproductive freedom, to Democratic cheers, several Republican lawmakers walked out of the legislative chamber.
“I will not support, and I will use every power of the governor’s office to stop, any legislation or action that attacks, strips, or delays the liberty or inherent right of any individual to decide what’s best for themselves or their families,” Hobbs said.
Hobbs admitted during the subsequent news conference that, with a Republican-controlled legislature, she didn’t expect to get any reproductive rights legislation passed this session.
“I think we’ll end up going to the ballot to restore access to safe, legal abortion in Arizona,” Hobbs said.
She also vowed to help families struggling with rising costs by allocating $50 million for a child tax credit that will go to families earning less than $40,000 a year. In addition, she plans to exempt diapers and feminine hygiene products from state sales taxes.
In their response video, Borrelli and Biasiucci called out Hobbs for inadequately addressing the crippling inflation facing Arizonans.
“Not once did we hear Gov. Hobbs mention the reality of the dire situation many of our citizens are finding themselves in as they live paycheck to paycheck,” Biasiucci said, adding that her narrow proposal to cut taxes on feminine hygiene items and diapers was not enough.
The Republican leaders said they instead propose eliminating taxes on food and rent, and cutting red tape in the approval process for housing developments, in an effort to increase the local housing supply. They promised that local and state governments would have a surplus of funds to weather these tax cuts for several years.
Hobbs proposed a “holistic, realistic, and humane approach” to dealing with immigration and the crisis at the border.
“Unfortunately, immigration has been politicized for far too long,” Hobbs said. “Arizona voters told us in November they don’t want or need political stunts designed solely to garner sensationalist TV coverage and generate social media posts.”
Hobbs also promised to work on Arizona’s water crisis, releasing a report Monday by the Arizona Department of Water Resources that she said Ducey had buried, showing that parts of the West Valley are short of their 100-year Assured Water Supply Program by 15%.
“This report unequivocally shows that we have to act now, or this will only be the first new area that faces this kind of shortage,” Hobbs said, also mentioning the restrictions put in place Jan. 1 that decrease Arizona’s water supply from the Colorado River by 21%.
To address water issues, Hobbs plans to launch the Governor’s Office of Resiliency to focus on water, energy and land use solutions. She’s also set to issue an executive order to launch the Governor’s Water Policy Council to modernize and expand the Arizona Groundwater Management Act.
“We must take these actions today because in many parts of our state, there are effectively no restrictions on groundwater pumping and local communities have little-to-no support to manage water supplies,” Hobbs said. “As a result, a new water user can move in, dig a well, and pump as much water as possible – even if it dries up the community’s aquifer.”
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.