5 IS­SUES TO WATCH

Law­mak­ers sure to dis­cuss education, opi­oids

The Arizona Republic - - FRONT PAGE - Dustin Gar­diner and Yvonne Wingett Sanchez

Ari­zona law­mak­ers head back to work Monday as the Leg­is­la­ture con­venes for its an­nual ses­sion. Sev­eral high-pro­file is­sues, from education fund­ing to the state’s opi­oid epi­demic, are ex­pected to top the agenda for what could be a marathon term.

Law­mak­ers also will gather in Monday af­ter­noon for open­ing cer­e­monies in the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, fol­lowed by Gov. Doug Ducey’s an­nual State of the State speech. Here are five is­sues to watch as law­mak­ers re­turn to the state Capi­tol:

1. Education fund­ing

Fund­ing for Ari­zona’s pub­lic schools will al­most cer­tainly dom­i­nate the next sev­eral months. The gover­nor and leg­isla­tive lead­er­ship from both par­ties un­equiv­o­cally say im­prov­ing fund­ing for class­rooms and teacher pay is para­mount.

Ducey, who wants to be known as the “education gover­nor,” is ex­pected in the com­ing days to un­veil a plan to in­crease school fund­ing. Dur­ing an in­ter­view with The Ari­zona Repub­lic on Jan. 5, the Repub­li­can gover­nor said he wants teach­ers to earn more money, adding, “I do think we’re go­ing to have to make the case of ac­count­abil­ity and where these dol­lars go.”

He said the ad­min­is­tra­tion is work­ing with su­per­in­ten­dents and prin­ci­pals “as to what’s the best way to move dol­lars forward in a way that will get these to teach­ers and give them the flex­i­bil­ity for what­ever need that they

have.”

Se­nate Pres­i­dent Steve Yar­brough, R-Chan­dler, said Fri­day dur­ing a leg­isla­tive fore­cast lun­cheon he has high ex­pec­ta­tions for the gover­nor’s plan.

With­out list­ing any de­tails, Yar­brough said he be­lieves it can be done with­out rais­ing taxes. Repub­li­can law­mak­ers have, in re­cent years, cham­pi­oned cor­po­rate tax cuts.

Mean­while, a coali­tion of education ad­vo­cates and busi­ness lead­ers, AZ Schools Now, has called on Ducey and law­mak­ers to make “sus­tain­able, per­ma­nent” in­vest­ments in the state’s schools. Op­tions in­clude freez­ing cor­po­rate in­come-tax breaks or rais­ing in­come-tax rates on wealthy house­holds.

Demo­cratic law­mak­ers, sim­i­larly, said the Leg­is­la­ture needs to find a per­ma­nent method to fund pub­lic schools, with­out gim­micks or short-term ma­neu­vers.

They have de­manded the state ask vot­ers to ex­pand Propo­si­tion 301, the state’s ex­ist­ing tax that helps fund education. That 0.6-cent voter-ap­proved sales tax ex­pires in 2021.

“We need to stop kick­ing the can down the road,” said House Mi­nor­ity Leader Re­becca Rios, D-Phoenix. “We need to do our job.”

Ducey and Repub­li­can state law­mak­ers also must con­tend with how to move forward with the con­tro­ver­sial school voucher-type pro­gram they nar­rowly ex­panded last year.

A grass-roots group gath­ered enough sig­na­tures to let vot­ers decide this Novem­ber if they want to keep it in place, but sup­port­ers of the ex­pan­sion have sued. The Em­pow­er­ment Schol­ar­ship Ac­count pro­gram, which al­lows more pub­lic-school stu­dents to use pub­lic money for pri­vate and re­li­gious schools, is on hold.

A judge’s rul­ing on whether the ref­er­en­dum will move forward is ex­pected some­time dur­ing the leg­isla­tive ses­sion.

GOP law­mak­ers could re­peal the ex­panded pro­gram, elim­i­nat­ing it as a 2018 elec­tion is­sue. Or, they could dou­ble down and make a pitch to vot­ers about why it should re­main in place.

Repub­li­cans law­mak­ers have told The Repub­lic there is no clear con­sen­sus on how to pro­ceed.

Ducey said Fri­day that “choice has been good” for Ari­zona. He would not specif­i­cally say how he wants to pro­ceed if the ref­er­en­dum moves forward.

“Let’s see what the bal­lot looks like,” he said. He added, “when we have some­thing that’s un­change­able, that of­ten con­cerns me,” al­lud­ing to ques­tions that have arisen as to whether the ref­er­en­dum would be voter-pro­tected.

2. Wa­ter

The gover­nor has asked law­mak­ers to push through plans to broadly re­shape wa­ter pol­icy in the state.

For much of the past year, Ducey’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has held back-room dis­cus­sions with law­mak­ers and wa­ter-pol­icy ex­perts on pol­icy changes to help pre­vent po­ten­tial drought con­di­tions on Lake Mead, which­could trig­ger re­duc­tions to the state’s al­lo­ca­tion of Colorado River wa­ter.

Law­mak­ers could also look at poli­cies to help avert po­ten­tial ground­wa­ter short­ages.

While many de­tails of the plan haven’t been re­leased, it has been panned by Democrats, who say Ducey is try­ing to usurp power from the elected gov­ern­ing board of the Cen­tral Ari­zona Pro­ject, which op­er­ates the canal sys­tem that brings Colorado River wa­ter to the cen­tral part of the state.

Some Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic law­mak­ers have com­plained that the ef­fort lacks trans­parency be­cause they’ve been ex­cluded from Ducey’s wa­ter talks.

Ducey down­played the no­tion that he and his ad­min­is­tra­tion have en­coun­tered “op­po­si­tion” to broadly re­form the state’s wa­ter pol­icy, say­ing it is their re­spon­si­bil­ity as lead­ers.

“I haven’t even put a pro­posal forward yet,” he said. “This is a very im­por­tant and crit­i­cal is­sue, what I want to see hap­pen is the state of Ari­zona to speak with one voice re­gard­ing wa­ter. This is the most crit­i­cal is­sue at the state level.”

3. Opi­oids

Last year, Ducey de­clared a pub­lic-health emer­gency on the opi­oid cri­sis, seek­ing to bol­ster the state’s ef­forts to bat­tle the epi­demic, which has claimed the lives of hun­dreds of Ari­zo­nans.

His ef­forts in­cluded a new re­quire­ment for all doc­tors, phar­ma­cists, hos­pi­tals, cor­rec­tional fa­cil­i­ties, emer­gency med­i­cal re­spon­ders and others to re­port within 24 hours on sus­pected opi­oid deaths, over­doses and the use of the over­dose-re­ver­sal drug nalox­one.

Ducey, who said his own ex­tended fam­ily has been touched by the cri­sis, said he will talk about opi­oid trends in the State of the State and pos­si­ble ways to move forward. He would not pro­vide specifics.

“We think the state’s headed in a bet­ter di­rec­tion, but there’s a higher sense of ur­gency in terms of what’s needed,” he said.

4. Sex­ual ha­rass­ment

Law­mak­ers re­turn to the Capi­tol un­der a cloud of con­tro­versy.

An in­ves­ti­ga­tion into mul­ti­ple com­plaints of sex­ual ha­rass­ment, mis­con­duct or in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior in­volv­ing state law­mak­ers be­gan in Novem­ber and is still un­der­way.

Rep. Don Shooter, a pow­er­ful Repub­li­can from Yuma, has been a pri­mary fo­cus of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Seven women have pub­licly ac­cused Shooter of in­ap­pro­pri­ate be­hav­ior, and sev­eral more have aired com­plaints against him with­out disclosing their names.

House Speaker J.D. Mes­nard, R-Chan­dler, said he doesn’t ex­pect an out­side in­ves­ti­ga­tor’s re­port to be com­plete for about two more weeks. That re­port could de­ter­mine whether ac­cu­sa­tions against Shooter and Rep. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, R-Scotts­dale, re­sult in for­mal ethics pro­ceed­ings.

Mes­nard said while he takes com­plaints se­ri­ously, he also doesn’t want to rush to judg­ment while due process is given. “I com­mit to mak­ing this place the very best it can be,” he added.

Ducey said sex­ual ha­rass­ment “has no place” in any work­place, be it the Leg­is­la­ture or cor­po­rate America. He said it is an is­sue that should be dealt with “di­rectly and with ur­gency.”

5. Child wel­fare

Two years ago, Ducey said the nearly 19,000 chil­dren in the state’s child-wel­fare sys­tem was a num­ber that kept him up at night. State of­fi­cials have made im­prove­ments that have led to fewer chil­dren com­ing into the sys­tem. The num­ber now stands at about 16,000.

That’s still too many, Ducey said.

He ref­er­enced a pro­gram known as CarePor­tal that is meant to con­nect fam­i­lies in cri­sis with faith-based groups that can help chil­dren in the sys­tem. Through the pro­gram, case­work­ers are con­nected to a net­work that alerts churches of chil­dren or fam­i­lies in need, al­low­ing them to pitch in as they can. The churches can then no­tify parish­ioners.

Ducey said he will talk about the pro­gram in the State of the State.

“It’s some­thing we’re ex­pand­ing,” he told The Repub­lic.

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