Gov. Ducey confident in his vision as legislative session looms

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey appears supremely confident in the direction he’s set for the state as he heads into his sixth year in office and prepares to present his annual State of the State address Monday.

The Republican governor is quick to push back on any question that he’s fallen short of fixing the major issues he faced when he assumed office in 2015 — including a woefully underfunded K-12 education system, a massive budget deficit and myriad other financial issues plaguing state government.

“We had a budget that was broken, we had a billion-dollar deficit, we had an education system that was fighting among itself and legislative leadership and lawyers determining the direction, a potential constitutional crisis and a sluggish economy,” he said in an interview in advance of Monday’s opening of the Legislative session.

“All that’s behind us now,” he told The Associated Press on Thursday. “We have a bursting general fund, we’ve got a replenished and maximized rainy day fund, we’ve got a booming economy and we’ve got an education system that’s showing real signs of improvement.”

He said he’s accomplishing the vision he laid out in his 2015 inaugural address, creating “opportunity for all,” and this year will make even more strides toward making that a reality.

In his first five years in office, Ducey led a settlement of a lawsuit filed by school districts over funding cuts where the state Supreme Court had ruled against the state. He cut hundreds of millions from the budget in his first year, hitting universities especially hard, but balanced the budget without massive harm.

He boosted school funding but faced a major education crisis in 2018 when teachers who are among the lowest paid in the nation went on strike. Tens of thousands marched on the Capitol, forcing Ducey to quickly pivot from a 1% pay increase plan to promise a 19% boost by this year.

But schools remain underfunded, and another crisis emerged last year when it was revealed that cell door locks at a prison west of Phoenix didn’t work, allowing prisoners to get out and attack guards and each other. A legislative budget analyst’s report shows fixing locks at several prisons and funding other deferred prison maintenance would cost $385 million.

Ducey is unfazed.

“Well, more resources are necessary,” he said. “I like to say that my last budget 2019 was far and away our best budget ever. I believe that this budget will be even better and will address some of the things that you’re mentioning, specifically corrections, which is in need of additional resources and has urgent problems to fix, along with infrastructure which is something that was neglected due to the downturn.”

Ducey will have an expected budget surplus of about $750 million to dole out in the coming session, although only about $170 million of that can be committed to ongoing spending initiatives. But don’t expect all of that money to go into spending — Ducey campaigned in 2014 on driving income tax rates down every year in office and he expects to do more this year,

Democrats who hold the minority in the state House and Senate bemoan tax cuts the majority had made yearly for more than 25 years. But Ducey doesn’t flinch.

“I made a pledge in 2014 that I would reduce or simplify taxes every year,” he said. “I’ve done it five years and I intend to do it in the sixth.

“It will be an ever-improving tax code and we’re going to have additional spending as well in terms of investment in K-12 education, public health and public safety.”