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Arizona GOP senator: 'The insanity has to stop on either side' with vetoed bills in Legislature

When the Arizona Legislature comes back into session on Monday, there will be no shortage of issues on lawmakers’ minds — from the budget shortfall for this fiscal year and the next one to school vouchers to Arizona’s public universities. Last year’s session was the longest ever in the state, and produced a new record for the number of gubernatorial vetoes.

To get a sense of what 2024 may have in store at the state Capitol, The Show spoke with two legislators, one Republican and one Democrat.

We started with Arizona Sen. T.J. Shope, a Coolidge Republican and the chamber’s president pro tempore. He spoke with The Show and discussed how much Arizona's financial picture will underpin most, if not all, of what lawmakers do this year.

Full interview

T.J. SHOPE: I, I think it's very fair to say that the state budget conversation will be the thing that sucks all the oxygen out of the room. It's one of the reasons why I don't think you'll see as many vetoes of bills this session. It's one of the reasons I, I don't think you'll have many other issues, and that's not to say that there aren't other issues that are important. But the state budget underpins every single one of those issues because in order to potentially appropriate money to any one of those that you need to solve, you need to have a balanced budget. And right now, obviously, we have, just like much of the country, a deficit. Ours is actually very manageable, at about $800 million this year and in looking at next year.

Look, I mean, the economic forces that have been at play nationally, no state is immune to that. However, I think the things that we have done as a state over the last handful of years have set us up in a place to bounce back probably faster than many of our other competitive states.

Are you anticipating that there will have to be cuts to the budget?

SHOPE: I'm anticipating that there will be a combination of, of yes, actual cuts, and most of those are cuts of if not cuts of one time spending that has been approved over the last couple of years. Structurally, as far as ongoing, we're in pretty good shape. We, we don't foresee really any cuts to any ongoing types of things, like programs that maybe the general public relies on that, that are things that we do. K-12, I, I foresee no cuts to anywhere in K-12 education going forward.

But so what we're talking about are, or maybe there are some programs that we funded just for one year at a time, that maybe instead of that increase, that, that program may have expected that they may actually just see their level of funding stay the same. Or there may be a couple of projects that the state was looking at funding, you know, in the next year as far as transportation, for example, that perhaps we're going to have to defer a year or two.

TJ Shope
TJ Shope at the Arizona State Capitol in 2023.

Some of your colleagues have talked about pretty steep reductions to university funding. Oftentimes it comes sort of in the context of free speech issues and things like that. Do you foresee cuts to university budgets?

SHOPE: First off, I think, you know, the the spreadsheets that I have, literally have, you know, pretty much every line item that we've approved over the last you know, three years. So in that sense, everything is on the table, right? But that's the way it should be.

We should be, we shouldn't just have a sacred cow kind of an item that, hey, no, we can't look at that. But to say that, you know, I think the specific words used where "we're going to gut the universities," and that was, you know, even that was something that I kind of looked at, heard, and rolled my eyes about, you know, it's like, I don't think that that's gonna happen.

There may be some problems though as far as I know Arizona State and Northern Arizona [University] are looking at starting medical schools. That may have to either be pushed off or they may have to get a little more creative with internal dollars that they have. And I could foresee that state potentially picking up tab later on in the out years to, to allow that to happen.

But look, the, the universities in Arizona, and I say that about all of them, do great work and they have different missions, and the, the missions that they are involved in are, are generally positive for the state. And my hope is that we'll be able to make sure that they are able to keep doing them.

In terms of K-12, obviously, ESAs — essentially school vouchers — were such a big issue in 2023. And there's been a lot of talk, especially from Democrats, about the need for or concern about the amount of money that it's costing; the number of, of students and families who are, who are taking the state up on this. Do you see any changes potentially coming to that program? Is that an area, the state's gonna need to fund more because of the number of, of, of students who are taking it?

SHOPE: Actually, we believe on the contrary. And our, our, our metrics show that that first year you had a lot of already enrolled, private school students taking advantage of the program now that it was available to them. As, as we get monthly updates from the Department of Education, we're actually seeing that it's, that has kind of ebbed. And now you're seeing the students who may be in a charter school or a district school of some sort taking advantage, which actually in the out years, that's why we have a projection that it actually will save money. 

But we do consider the program to be part of the entire K-12 umbrella. So when we say that we're not gonna touch K-12 funding, that's part of it.

So you mentioned that you think there might be fewer vetoes this session in 2024 than 2023. Of course, [in] 2023, Governor [Katie] Hobbs set the record for, for the number of vetoes. Does that mean that you think there will be fewer "culture war" type bills, fewer election type bills that clearly the governor will not sign?

SHOPE: I don't know that there will be fewer of them introduced. I mean, any member left or right, has the same opportunity to introduce bills as, as the other. However, since we have maybe tried something and it was vetoed, if you're going to run the same exact bill the following year, what have you done? The question will be, what have you done to maybe change the governor's mind, right?

And I'm certainly not immune. I had a couple of bills that although I wouldn't call them "culture war" kind of issues, that perhaps the governor hadn't staffed up yet. So we couldn't have a conversation with somebody who was an expert in the field to talk about why this was important or any number of, of other, more innocuous reasons. So we'll go ahead and try again now that their staff is there.

But for those who maybe were running things that I would characterize as veto bait, I have a strong suspicion that we won't see as many of them make it, you know, to the governor mainly because at what point do you go ahead?

And if the governor's theoretically fundraising off of all the vetoes, just as much as we're fundraising off of passing "culture war" bills at some point, the insanity has to stop on either side, right.

So, you know, as well as anybody that every year some issue comes to the fore that nobody really saw coming like the "tamale bill" last year that I think in January, if we'd had this conversation, that probably would not have been among the things that you had said would be a huge issue. Do you have any kind of like crystal ball prediction as to what something that's under the radar now that, you know, come maybe February or March or April will be something that everybody's talking about, right?

SHOPE: I'll go out on a limb and say that I don't believe even though it is very important and it's something that I have worked on extensively. I don't think that water is going to rise to the top as far as being a number one issue. I think that because there's probably just overall disagreement on how to achieve goals so much so that people will just say, all right, we can't figure this out. Let's piecemeal a few small things together.

Is that OK? I mean, we kind of got bailed out by the precipitation last winter, but clearly lots of issues. 

SHOPE: There are lots of issues there. I think that there's a lot, but there's also a lot of various areas that people want to go that may not lend itself to consensus at this time. The, the reality is, is that right now we have a lot of water in some places and we don't have a lot in other places.

The things I'm very interested on, how do we go ahead and make sure that when the Salt River watershed has a good year that there's some transferability that can happen with the Colorado River system. We had a bill last year to do that in my neck of the woods. But the reality is is that just because it doesn't rise to the level potentially of importance that it deserves as far as bills doesn't mean that people aren't talking about it.

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Mark Brodie is a co-host of The Show, KJZZ’s locally produced news magazine. Since starting at KJZZ in 2002, Brodie has been a host, reporter and producer, including several years covering the Arizona Legislature, based at the Capitol.