State of the State: What Governor Doug Ducey Said, and What He Meant

Governor Doug Ducey's fifth state of the state speech on Monday was sunny, with a few warnings to legislators scattered throughout.
Governor Doug Ducey's fifth state of the state speech on Monday was sunny, with a few warnings to legislators scattered throughout. ACTV
In his fifth State of the State address, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey on Monday called on lawmakers to make a second attempt at passing a school safety plan, take a hatchet to unnecessary laws, and resist raising taxes.

Ducey pushed the case for a fiscally conservative government that eschews a bloated budget, his words foreshadowing a possible fight with educators in the #RedForEd movement who want Arizona to invest more in K-12 education.

“With revenue soaring, some have suggested, 'Loosen up, let the good times roll,'” Ducey said. “Ladies and gentleman, we’ve seen that movie before, and we know how it ends.”

In addition to stern words urging lawmakers to ratify Arizona's Drought Contingency Plan, which faces a critical January 31 federal deadline, Ducey outlined numerous priorities for the session, fresh off his re-election victory in November.

He hit bipartisan notes throughout, offering the occasional shoutout to Democratic politicians and telling legislators to “put party labels aside.” His tone seemed a tacit acknowledgement of the narrow 31-29 Republican margin in the House, where a single GOP defector could join a united Democratic bloc and effectively halt the passage of any legislation.

Ducey welcomed the newly sworn-in lawmakers, and praised the incoming Republican House and Senate leaders Rusty Bowers and Karen Fann, while greeting their Democratic counterparts in the minority, Charlene Fernandez and David Bradley.

On its face, Ducey's speech was sunny: The state of the state, he said, is strong and growing stronger. But scattered in his address were also some not-so-subtle warnings to legislators, in case they get any ideas about deviating from Ducey's priorities on K-12 education funding and taxes.

“The challenge before us is to lay the groundwork today to make sure the Arizona of tomorrow remains strong,” Ducey said. “Doing so requires action now to do the things that matter and secure Arizona’s future.”

What are the things that matter to Arizona's future from the governor's perspective? A few takeaways from Ducey's speech are below.

1. The governor will make a second attempt at passing a school safety plan.

Ducey's so-called school safety plan, rolled out last March after the devastating Parkland, Florida, high school shooting, pleased pretty much no one.

Republicans blanched at a proposal to remove guns from potentially threatening individuals using a judge's order. The proposed restraining order, known as a Severe Threat Order of Protection (STOP), was eventually revised so that only police could move to ask a judge to take someone's firearm, as opposed to family members or school administrators.

Democrats and the outspoken high-schoolers in the Arizona March for Our Lives organization criticized Ducey's plan for not closing a background-check loophole for people who buy firearms at gun shows. The March for Our Lives student-activists also opposed the plan because it expanded the use of school police officers stationed on campus, known as resource officers, or SROs.

click to enlarge Fifteen thousand students and their supporters from all over Arizona rallied on Saturday, March 24, at the State Capitol, joining their peers in a nationwide event to demand their lawmakers take action on guns. - PATRICK BRYANT
Fifteen thousand students and their supporters from all over Arizona rallied on Saturday, March 24, at the State Capitol, joining their peers in a nationwide event to demand their lawmakers take action on guns.
Patrick Bryant
Overall, Ducey's plan, the high-schoolers said, appeared to be designed to mollify the NRA, which endorsed the governor's proposal.

Ducey's plan passed in the Senate but stalled in the House, where it was overshadowed by the #RedForEd protests in the spring and never received a vote. But the components to his plan were devised after studying the five deadliest school shootings of the last two decades, Ducey said, and the measures could prevent the next massacre.

“These are solutions that will make schools safer, and it’s time for us to get it done,” he said.

In his speech, Ducey played up the plan as “a reasoned and balanced approach – which is why thought leaders like David French at the National Review and Hugh Hewitt have endorsed it; why the Arizona PTA supports it; and why we modeled elements of it from Gabby Giffords’ plan.”

While part of the plan may have been taken from Giffords’ gun-reform advocacy organization, the group previously criticized Ducey’s school safety bill.

In a statement at the close of the last legislative session, the organization’s executive director Peter Ambler said, “Governor Ducey chose to craft his proposal behind closed doors with the help of the gun lobby – refusing to take into account the priorities of the students, families, and communities of Arizona committed to public safety."

2. Ducey really, really doesn't want to raise taxes.

In his first bid for governor, Ducey promised that he wouldn’t raise taxes. So, shocking no one, in his state of the state, Ducey emphasized that Arizona shouldn’t raise taxes in spite of increased revenue. Instead, legislators should repeal irrelevant laws and roll back regulations to pare down the size of government.

The state should increase the rainy day fund to a “record-breaking” $1 billion balance, Ducey said, in anticipation of the next economic downturn. With his call for legislators to get rid of unneeded laws, Ducey relied on some vivid language, urging lawmakers to "chop the stacks and stacks of statutes down."

Overall, it was an unremarkable conservative case for small government. “Government didn’t rebuild Arizona; people rebuilt their businesses," Ducey said.

In spite of a booming economy, Arizona should avoid the false budgetary promises made by past leaders, he said. His first term as governor was notable for its fiscal responsibility, he said. “When I stood here four years ago, we faced a $1 billion deficit. It’s not by accident that today, we’ve got a $1 billion surplus,” Ducey said.

He portrayed the November election as a message "to the big spenders," arguing that voters "want their teachers paid and their budgets balanced."

But the #RedForEd movement scored some significant victories in November, too, electing a Democratic state superintendent, speech pathologist Kathy Hoffman, while sending several education champions to the Legislature. The #RedForEd educators have rejected Ducey's 20 percent pay plan, calling the raise inadequate and based on optimistic economic projections. The teacher-activists have vowed to show up again during this legislative session to advocate for more school funding.

One Republican state senator, Sylvia Allen, has already proposed raising Arizona's sales tax from Proposition 301, which helps fuel education spending, to a full penny from its current 0.6 cents. However, Ducey is cold on the proposal, as he told reporters on Friday, and he hammered home his anti-tax message in the address on Monday.

“Arizona weathered the storm, made tough decisions, held the line on raising taxes, and will continue to hold the line on raising taxes,” Ducey said. “It’s the Arizona way, it’s a winning game plan, and I have no intention of changing course.”

His words may set up a fight with the #RedForEd activists, who have demanded a sustainable source of revenue to recoup a $1 billion deficit in Arizona's post-recession education budget.

3. Ducey wants an end to immunity for lawbreaking legislators.

Representative Paul Mosley invoked it. Representative David Cook apparently tried to invoke it. Now, Ducey wants to end it.

Legislative immunity – one of the more baffling provisions of the Arizona Constitution that only comes up, it seems, when a lawmaker gets pulled over – says that lawmakers cannot be arrested "in all cases except treason, felony, and breach of the peace" and are exempt from civil processes when the Legislature is in session.

Mosley was caught on tape last summer bragging to a deputy about how he regularly drives in excess of 120 miles per hour. He was let go with a warning, but was later charged by the Cochise County attorney. And just last month, Cook seemed like he tried to get out of a DUI arrest by initially handing over his House identification card instead of his driver's license when stopped by a state trooper.

In the aftermath of Mosley's boasts about speeding, Ducey signed an executive order empowering state law enforcement to enforce traffic laws for errant legislators by classifying these violations as a "breach of the peace." House Speaker Pro Tempore T.J. Shope, a Republican, proposed repealing legislative immunity at the time.

In his speech on Monday, Ducey endorsed Shope's idea of sending the amendment to the ballot so that Arizonans can change the state Constitution. And Ducey used the legislative immunity provision to take one of several punches at the federal government.

“No one – not me, nor you – is above the law,” Ducey said. “Now, Congress likes to exempt themselves from the law – but isn’t that why Americans hold them in such contempt?”

4. The governor thinks the 20 percent teacher pay raise is working.

Teachers are getting paid more thanks to his 20 percent pay raise plan, passed in the face of the #RedForEd protests last year, Ducey said, with the first 10 percent installment of the raises making an impact in school districts around the state.

The governor warned lawmakers who might consider using the dollars somewhere else. "I have one message: Don't even think about it," he said. "These are raises teachers earned, and they are raises we are going to fulfill and protect."

Meanwhile, career and technical education programs and the Arizona Teachers Academy are paying dividends, Ducey said. But he didn’t call for a new, dedicated infusion of revenue into Arizona’s education system – a demand of the teachers’ union, which is threatening to bring back the Invest in Education Act measure via the 2020 ballot and raise income taxes on the rich.

“More is needed on K-12 education: a focus on results, resources, and reforms,” Ducey said. Without mentioning any specific funding increases, he went on to praise Arizona’s reputation as a school choice leader.

Some politicians, like Republicans including Attorney General Mark Brnovich and State Senator Kate Brophy McGee, along with many Democrats, have called for specific reforms to Arizona’s charter school sector designed to curb conflicts of interest in procurement and financial mismanagement.

Yet on Monday, Ducey didn’t offer much beyond a request for vague endorsement of "more transparency, more accountability, and granting more financial review and oversight over taxpayer dollars – all with the purpose of making sure every public school is improving and providing Arizona kids with the best-possible education."

The education dimension to Ducey's speech signaled the importance of the teacher pay raises to the governor.

He unveiled the 20 by 2020 plan last spring in the face of escalating teacher activism. In light of his threat to legislators to maintain the pay-raise dollars, Ducey knows that if the pay raises suddenly disappear as a result of an economic downturn or a budgetary shell game, the protests may return, and he will get the blame. 
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Joseph Flaherty is a staff writer at New Times. Originally from Wisconsin, he is a graduate of Middlebury College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Contact: Joseph Flaherty