‘Spirit of Service’
Ducey seeks middle ground in annual address
In his final State of the State speech before his 2018 re-election campaign, Gov. Doug Ducey touted his accomplishments while presenting an agenda of tackling the opioid crisis, increasing school funding and adopting new policies for ex-prisoners and the child-welfare system.
In a speech that lasted 56 minutes Monday afternoon, Arizona’s Republican governor, first elected in 2014, did not identify funding sources for his many proposals.
His administration plans to release some of his education-funding proposals in the coming days, which could include state money found through government reforms. He is scheduled to unveil his full budget on
The theme of the speech, “Spirit of Service,” paid homage to Arizona’s political giants, including the late Gov. Rose Mofford and U.S. Sen. John McCain, who is battling a deadly form of brain cancer called glioblastoma.
He used that theme to call on lawmakers to put partisan politics aside to tackle the state’s most pressing needs, saying they must do so with “integrity, humility” and “by forgetting about who should get the credit.”
Ducey, known for his tendency to play it safe in his public remarks, avoided controversial subjects that tend to divide Republicans and Democrats, such as illegal immigration and health-care reform.
Instead, as he prepares to ask voters to return him to the executive office, he focused on issues that could galvanize Arizonans from both parties.
For the fourth year in a row, Ducey did not announce plans to eliminate or significantly reduce personal income taxes, a highlight of his 2014 campaign.
Instead, his tax plan this year would allow Arizona veterans to keep more of their retirement pay. He said it has been nearly three decades since the state created a tax exemption for military pensioners, which is capped at $2,500. He wants to increase the exemption cap to $10,000.
He said he wants to increase the exemption, which applies to roughly 50,000 of the state’s 600,000 veterans.
“Their service has earned them a lifetime benefit from our nation,” he said. “So please, send me a bill that increases the exemption and demonstrates to our vets that we value this service.”
Ducey’s guests included his wife, Angela; McCain’s wife, Cindy; and Sonoran Gov. Claudia Pavlovich, who made history by becoming the first woman elected governor of the Mexican state on Arizona’s southern border.
McCain and Angela Ducey shared an emotional embrace after the governor told her “you and Sen. McCain have all Arizona’s love, prayers and support.”
The governor also invited two school superintendents; Thomas Yoxall, the man who saved the life of a state trooper; and Xavier Kennedy, a 9-year-old boy who raised money to send a foster child and her family to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, a Republican from Chandler, said Ducey touched on the state’s most pressing issues. “I look forward to seeing the specifics in terms of dollars,” he said. “From a legislative standpoint, there were no surprises, which is preferable.”
Lawmakers gathered at the Capitol under a cloud of allegations about sexual harassment by some members of the Legislature.
Stories of sexual harassment and widespread sexism created a more sober setting than previous opening days.
Ducey chose the venue to take on the issue.
“It should go without saying, but it bears repeating: Every individual deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” he said. “Always. No exceptions. Private sector. Public sector. In my office. In state agencies. In this chamber. And everywhere else.”
He did not specifically mention the ongoing investigations into allegations of sexual harassment by Republican Reps. Don Shooter and Michelle UgentiRita, which have loomed over the Capitol in recent months.
The governor planted a flag on a lifeand-death issue: opioids.
Over the past year or so, Ducey has worked to try to reduce opioid-related deaths by bolstering awareness and cracking down on over-prescribing of the drugs.
Early in his speech, he called for a concurrent, special session to combat opioid use, saying leaders must be more aggressive in fighting the problem.
“These are real lives and real people. Gone. Someone’s mom, their dad. Daughters and sons. All ages. All incomes,” he said. “Families, marriages and lives torn apart, tragically and unexpectedly because of a potent drug misprescribed, overprescribed — and then, before you know it, it’s too late.”
The governor said his legislative package will protect those suffering from chronic pain. But, he warned, “All bad actors will be held accountable — whether they are doctors, manufactures or just plan drug dealers.”
Top aides in his administration said before the speech the governor will release his legislative package some time next week.
That package almost certainly will draw heavily from recommendations made last year by the Arizona Department of Health Services.
A report from the department included about a dozen legislative and policy changes, including legislation that would ban prescribers from dispensing opioids and requiring pharmacists to check a statewide database to ensure patients are not prescribed both opioids and benzodiazepines, like Xanax. That is a potentially deadly combination.
About midway through his speech, Ducey pivoted to the issue at the top of the minds of lawmakers and his political rivals: education funding.
While Arizona’s public schools continue to rank near the bottom in the nation, Ducey said the state doesn’t get enough credit for its improvement. He noted several schools and districts are graded among the nation’s best.
Ducey, who calls himself the “education governor,” said he plans to present a budget that will restore lingering recession-era cuts to schools. His speech did not include any details.
“We can always do more for our kids and our teachers,” he said. “In fact, 80 percent of our new budget priorities you’ll see Friday will be for public education.”
Ducey has come under fire for his education-funding proposals since the earliest days of his administration — and as recently as a rally at the Capitol on Saturday.
Critics accuse him of underfunding classrooms and teachers while cutting taxes for corporations and expanding a school voucher-style program often used by wealthy families.
Even before his remarks, Democratic lawmakers said they have little faith Ducey’s pledge to bolster school funding will be meaningful.
Hours before he delivered his speech, the Legislature’s Democratic caucus held a press conference where they blasted Ducey for paying “lip service” to education funding in past years.
They doubted 2018 would be much different.
“We hope that’s not the case, but we’ve learned the hard way not to get too excited by something that sounds great in a speech,” said House Minority Leader Rebecca Rios.
“Last year, the governor’s proposals for education and our teachers were a mile wide and an inch deep.”
After the speech, Rios praised his plan for a special session to tackle opioid abuse, but said that, too, was “short on substance, when you talk about treatment for those that are already addicted.”
Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, said at the earlier press conference that the minority party would fight to ensure children go to school in classrooms that aren’t “overcrowded or crumbling” and learn from teachers who earn a decent wage.
The Democratic leaders released their agenda for the year that calls on Ducey to find a long-term, sustainable education-funding source given the looming expiration of Prop. 301, the existing tax that helps fund education. That 0.6-cent per dollar voter-approved sales tax expires in 2021.
The governor did not mention Prop. 301 in his speech.
Ducey also set his sights on wrongway drivers, which have emerged recently as a more urgent public-safety issue. He has already ordered state agencies to take steps to combat the drivers.
In his remarks, he called on lawmakers to pass a bill that would allow prosecutors to charge impaired wrong-way drivers with felonies — even if they do not cause fatal crashes.
“Those reckless enough to put lives on the line by driving the wrong way on our highways, under the influence of drugs or alcohol, should face a felony conviction and prison time,” he said.
He said the state Department of Public Safety will step up funding to enhance its wrong-way driver program, known as “Wrong-Way Driver Night Watch.”His office announced his budget would include $1.4 million to increase patrol coverage for the program.
Ducey said he also would push for the state to do more to prevent former inmates from returning to the prison system, saying the state must spend more money and education and less on prison beds.
He outlined plans to expand “second chance” centers in Phoenix and Tucson, which the state opened last year, to help 975 more inmates annually. At the centers, inmates scheduled to leave prison soon are taught skills to help them find jobs and readjust to life in society.
Ducey referenced the federal government’s oversight of horses in the lower Salt River to transition to his efforts to eliminate “needless” state regulations.
He said last year that the state eliminated 676 regulations.
He mentioned Juan Carlos Montesdeoca, a Tucson man who was threatened by the State Board of Cosmetology last year because he was giving free haircuts to homeless people.
He said Ugenti-Rita, R-Scottsdale, has a bill that would end regulations on stylists who want to blow-dry hair.
“Let’s get more Arizonans to work and get it passed,” he said.
Ducey closed with what sounded like a call for bipartisanship.
“I don’t want to sound naive,” he said. “I realize that we are a country divided and in many ways a people divided. Our state as well. But as a country we’ve been here before — in more difficult circumstances.”
He finished that thought with a quote from Abraham Lincoln referencing “the better angels of our nature.”
TOP: Gov. Doug Ducey acknowledges lawmakers at the Capitol on Monday following his State of the State address. ABOVE: Cindy McCain receives applause at the Capitol.