5 ISSUES TO WATCH
Lawmakers sure to discuss education, opioids
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
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.
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.”
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.