The Arizona Legislature wrapped up its work last week. Between opening day in January and Sine Die on Friday, May 4, lawmakers managed to pass a budget that increased education spending (but fell short of what teachers were asking for), pass several measures to combat Arizona's opioid crisis and kicked state Rep. Don Shooter of Yuma out of the House for some #MeToo-style sexual misconduct.
Here are 13 takeaways from the session.
The Public Is Behind Educators
You only had to see the way that Gov. Doug Ducey went from dismissing teachers as political operatives to agreeing that they deserved a 20 percent raise to realize that polling must show that the public believes education is underfunded. By laying out his 20X2020 plan, Ducey was able to defuse the showdown between teachers and GOP lawmakers. Teachers and their allies remain skeptical that Ducey will deliver the promised raises in years to come if he wins reelection, especially if his rosy financial projections don't materialize. And they're also unhappy that the plan doesn't include funding to repair aging classrooms, replace outdated textbooks and computer equipment, or aid support staff or schools. But Ducey can campaign on adding hundreds of millions to K-12 education funding, even if the bill is yet to come due.
Voters Will Decide the Fate of Vouchers
Here's one reason that the #RedForEd crew distrusts Ducey: Last year, the governor signed a bill to give away public dollars to private schools via a massive expansion of the state's voucher program last year.
That law ended up on hold when opponents under the banner of Save Our Schools Arizona collected enough signatures to force a referendum on it. Voters will decide whether the program should go forward as planned in November.
After a legal effort to knock Prop 305 off the ballot failed, GOP state lawmakers tinkered with the idea of changing the law a bit so that opponents would have to collect signatures for a new referendum if they wanted to block it, but that legislative effort fizzled out.
TUSD Homeowners Will See a Property Tax Hike
As part of their plan to put more money into education, Ducey and GOP state lawmakers cooked up a scheme to force a tax hike on TUSD homeowners. Without getting into the weeds on the property-tax system, the Republicans basically found a way to shift a state-subsidized tax of nearly $17 million onto the back of local taxpayers by moving the federally mandated desegregation tax to a portion of the tax bill normally reserved for paying off bond debt. What does that mean for for TUSD taxpayers? Depending on the value of your house, an extra couple hundred bucks a year.
State Lawmakers Are Capable of Passing a Tax Increase
After voters amended the Arizona Constitution to require a two-thirds majority in both chambers in order to increase taxes, the Arizona Legislature has pretty much been about lowering taxes, not increasing them. So it's remarkable that lawmakers did agree to extend the state's education sales tax—six-tenths of a cent on every dollar—for another 20 years. This could have been a big political battle or a voter initiative, but lawmakers took the air of out of political football by working in a bipartisan way to extend the tax without much tinkering. Of course, now that lawmakers have approved the extension, it's no longer voter-protected, which means future legislatures will be able to rework funding distributions and other sleight of hand...
The Budget Process Still Sucks
Once upon a time, budgets were reviewed in something resembling sunlight. Sure, there were plenty of backroom deals, but at least the appropriation committees heard real testimony about the impact of budget cuts or the need for more funding. Now it's all a dog-and-pony show while the real work is done behind closed doors, rushed out and voted on in a marathon all-nighter. This is a lousy way to do the public's business.
A bipartisan effort to act on opioid abuse led to new laws meant to ease Arizona's opioid crisis. It included $10 million to help people afford treatment; making it easier for police to carry an overdose reversal drug; a "Good Samaritan" law designed to encourage people to call 911 in the case of an overdose; and creating new limits on prescriptions alongside new penalties for forged prescriptions.
Firing Blanks: No Action on Gun Violence
In the wake of the Parkland, Florida, mass shooting, Ducey tried to roll out a "school safety plan," but it never picked up much support in the Legislature. Republicans said it went too far by allowing family members or other members of the public to make a report that would require someone to defend their right to a gun, while Democrats said it didn't go far enough in extending background checks, among other complaints.
Pima County Isn't Getting a Sales Tax To Pay for Road Repair Anytime Soon
Pima County officials were hoping to find a way to either ask voters to approve a sales tax for road repair or allow the Board of Supervisors to enact a sales tax with just a super-majority of the supervisors rather than the current requirement of a unanimous vote (since Pima County Supervisor Ally Miller would rather see all the roads crumble into dust than support finding a real way to pay for their repairs). But legislation that emerged in March as a striker didn't have enough gas in the tank to get past the finish line.
You Can Still Text and Drive in Much of Arizona
While some local jurisdictions have banned texting and driving, Republican state lawmakers still see it an affront to freedom, so an effort to do a statewide ban went nowhere this year.
State Lawmakers Want To Know Why You're Getting an Abortion
While there's not much more Republican lawmakers can do to limit abortion rights (and many of the things they've tried to have been rejected by the courts, at taxpayer expense), they did come up with a new requirement: Abortion providers have to ask women why they are getting an abortion and report the reason, whether it was for economic reasons, or because a woman didn't want a child at this time, or because the pregnancy was the result or rape or incest, or whether the woman had relationship issues with the father, or a few other potential reasons. (Women have the option of not answering the question.) Jodi Liggett, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona, said the new law "will not improve the lives or health care for people who need it in the state. No mainstream medical organization supports this bill. Instead of shaming and harassing women seeking health care, we urge policymakers to focus on respectful solutions that increase access to birth control and help women who want to plan or prevent pregnancy to do so."
Rio Nuevo Won Big
Rio Nuevo—the downtown redevelopment agency that became synonymous with waste, fraud and abuse in its early years—has redeemed itself in a big way, thanks to the results it has delivered in recent years. The agency has jumpstarted several downtown developments (including a new hotel, with more on the way), played a vital role in luring Caterpillar to Southern Arizona, begun a long-overdue makeover at the Tucson Convention Center and—most importantly from the perspective of the state—delivered a whole lot of new sales-tax dollars to the state. State lawmakers, who stripped control of Rio Nuevo from the City of Tucson, were willing to extend the life of the district by an additional 10 years, meaning that downtown Tucson will continue to be able to put a portion of those new sales-tax dollars to work for new downtown development.
The State Will Now Subsidize Dirty Energy
In one of the more absurd tax breaks offered this year, lawmakers passed a bill removing the sales tax on coal. The aim is to keep Northern Arizona's Navajo Generating Station in business. The aging coal-burning power plant is scheduled for closure at the end of 2019 because it's not economically competitive with natural gas and renewable energy options. That's undeniably a problem for employment on the Navajo Reservation, but it appears unlikely that, even with a tax break, a new operator will be interested in taking over an aging coal mine, despite the fact that the Trump administration celebrates the idea of more air pollution.
We have a new state dinosaur!
The Sonorasaurus walked these parts some 100 million years ago, but the big guy—50 feet long and 27 feet tall—only came to our notice in the mid-'90s, when a team led by Ronald Paul Ratkevich excavated its bones from a dig in Cochise County's Whetstone Mountains. State lawmakers honored the find by making Sonorasaurus our official state dinosaur. We're glad he edged out former Maricopa County Sheriff and current U.S. Senate candidate Joe Arpaio.
The televised edition of Zona Politics with Jim Nintzel airs 6:30 p.m. Fridays on the Creative Tucson network, Cox Channel 20 and Xfinity Channel 74. The TV show repeats Sunday mornings at 9 a.m. and Thursday nights at 6:30 p.m. The radio edition of Zona Politics airs at 5 p.m. Sundays on community radio KXCI, 91.3 FM. Nintzel also talks about what's happening in Tucson entertainment on The Frank Show at 9:30 Wednesday mornings on KLPX, 96.1 FM and will be a guest this Friday on the Buckmaster Show, airing at noon on KVOI, 1030 AM.