Ducey says education, water, border security will be top priorities for legislative session
Arizona must 'learn to live with' COVID-19, he says
Education, water and border security will be among the top agenda items Gov. Doug Ducey plans to highlight in his State of the State address on Monday, which will kick off his eighth and final legislative session.
“I think this is going to be as big an agenda as we’ve ever put forward,” Ducey said during an Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry luncheon at Chase Field on Friday.
Ducey rarely provides much advance notice on what will be in his State of the State address, and this year is no exception. But there are some major issues that he and the legislature will be forced to confront. Perhaps the most pressing matter is in K-12 education, where schools will soon run up against a spending cap that could cost them about $1.1 billion.
Since 1980, the Arizona Constitution has included a formula that sets an aggregate spending limit for schools. Because Ducey and the legislature did not get voter approval to exceed that cap when they reauthorized an expiring sales tax in 2018, Arizona schools are poised to hit that cap on March 1. The legislature can permit schools to exceed the cap for one year with a two-thirds vote.
Ducey said he’ll release his budget plan on Friday, four days after his State of the State address, but wouldn’t comment further on whether he’ll support lifting the spending cap.
The governor was also cagey about whether he’ll support a likely push to repeal-and-replace a billion-dollar income tax cut he signed last year in order to eliminate the possibility that voters will reject the plan in November.
Ducey originally ran for governor in 2014 with a pledge to reduce Arizona’s income tax rate to as close to zero as possible. Last year, he was finally able to make good his mission to slash income taxes, reducing Arizona’s top rate to 2.98%, with a 2.5% flat rate for all Arizonans going into effect as soon as 2023 if state revenues hit certain benchmarks.
But Democrats who opposed the tax cuts as a giveaway to the state’s wealthiest residents collected enough signatures to refer the law to the 2022 ballot, which would give voters an opportunity to overturn the cuts.
Ducey wouldn’t comment on whether he supports the repeal-and-replace plan being pushed by Sen. J.D. Mesnard and Rep. Ben Toma, the legislative architects of the tax cut plan. He told the Arizona Mirror that he can’t control what comes out of the legislature and that he’ll work to “control the controllables.” He also said he hasn’t spoken with Mesard and Toma, but that he read an article about their plan “with great interest.”
“I’m in favor of leaving the state better than I found it in 2015,” Ducey told the Mirror in a phone interview Friday. “I made a commitment that I was going to lower and simplify taxes every year that I was governor, and any policy that furthers the state’s economic vitality and attractiveness is one that I will pursue.”
A landmark ruling by the Arizona Supreme Court ended the longstanding practice of stuffing budget bills full of non-budget items, which legislative leadership and governors have historically done to win votes from recalcitrant lawmakers. In the process, the court struck down dozens of laws that were included in last year’s budget.
Ducey said some of those laws need to be passed anew, though he wouldn’t say exactly which ones. But he told reporters after the Chamber of Commerce luncheon that it’s possible he’ll call a special session to re-authorize several measures pertaining to COVID-19. The court’s ruling invalidated laws banning schools from imposing vaccine, mask and testing mandates.
“I’m open-minded to it,” he said.
While Ducey wants to ensure that Arizona has no vaccine mandates or school closures due to COVID-19, he signaled that he has no plans to take action to curb the spread of the virus, despite surging numbers in Arizona and across the country.
The governor said 100% of Arizonans over the age of 65 have been vaccinated — the actual figure is closer to 94%, according to health officials — and hoped to see vaccination rates increase among other age groups. But he questioned how much the state can really do to improve that, saying people’s personal physicians are far more persuasive than elected officials. And he has drawn a line in the sand when it comes to mandates on vaccines or masking.
“We’re going to have to learn to live with this virus safely and responsibly,” Ducey said.
Ducey said different states have taken different approaches to the COVID-19 pandemic. His approach has largely focused on keeping businesses and schools open, and rejecting mandates and other requirements related to the virus.
“I do think that we may see two different worldviews on how this can be handled, but I don’t think you would point to either one and say that it was the more successful, via COVID. I do think the view in Arizona has been more balanced across the board in terms of protecting lives, livelihoods and personal liberty,” he said.
Another issue that’s likely to play a prominent role during the 2022 session is so-called “election integrity” legislation. Many Republican lawmakers have promoted false allegations that the 2020 election was rigged against President Donald Trump. A review that Senate President Karen Fann ordered of the election in Maricopa County, which was conducted by unqualified companies that had also promoted lies about the election, claimed to have found dozens of possible problems with the election, though county officials recently found that 74 or the 75 claims were false.
Nonetheless, some GOP lawmakers have made clear that they’ll sponsor legislation to restrict voting or make other changes to Arizona election laws in order to address the nonexistent fraud. Ducey said he’ll sign or veto any proposed election law changes that reach his desk based on whether they’re good policy. He also said “you’ll hear my feelings regarding that subject” in his State of the State address.
“I didn’t see the report. I’m not going to read the report. I imagine I’ll see a summary or a briefing. But I certified the election. That was quite a statement on what my thoughts were. And I’ll sign good policy if good policy gets to my desk,” said Ducey, who has rejected the bogus fraud claims about the 2020 election.
This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.