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Hobbs reflects on legislative session, bipartisan budget

Katie Hobbs
Emily Mai/Cronkite News
Gov. Katie Hobbs announces an independent prison oversight commission on Jan. 25, 2023.

Democratic Gov. Katie Hobbs considers the 2024 legislative session that ended this month a success but said there is more she could accomplish if Democrats take control of the legislature next year.

Hobbs said she is proud of the bipartisan budget she negotiated with the Republican-controlled Legislature, saying they managed to balance the budget and make new investments to expand access to childcare, affordable housing and address the fentanyl crisis.

“Facing a really different budget situation than last year, we were still able to work in a bipartisan manner to pass a balanced budget that tackles the nearly $2 billion deficit and protects vital services for Arizonans,” Hobbs said.

But the budget also made steep cuts to address that deficit, including removing over $400 million that was dedicated to securing the state’s water future.

According to the budget, those cuts are intended to be temporary, and Hobbs said her administration will continue to focus on finding solutions to conserve and augment the state’s water supply.

She said her office made progress in talks with Republicans on “meaningful” legislation to reform groundwater management in Arizona, though they fell short of passing that legislation before the session ended on June 15.

But the governor said she is confident that legislation will move forward next year, or possibly sooner in a special legislative session later this year.

“I think everyone is committed to staying at the table,” Hobbs said.

Looking ahead to the next session, Hobbs contemplated her priorities if Democrats wrest control of legislature from Republicans in the upcoming election.

“I think a big issue that’s looming out there and it has been is the issue of ESA reform,” Hobbs said.

Democrats at the state Capitol negotiated some minor reforms to Arizona’s school voucher program during budget talks this year, but those changes fell well short of the ambitious plan the governor’s office proposed in January to rein in the universal voucher program that Republicans expanded in 2022 and is expected to cost the state $864 million next school year.

The new budget included a change that will cut around $2.5 million in voucher costs from the program. It also requires fingerprinting for teachers at private schools receiving state money and calls on the Department of Education to create a list of acceptable voucher expenses.

But the failure to do more to curtail voucher spending — along with cuts to funding for public schools serving low-income students — irked some Hobbs allies, leading to sizable Democratic opposition to the budget amidst allegations the governor did not do enough to include Democratic lawmakers in the budget negotiation process.

When the budget passed, House Democratic Leader Lupe Contreras (D-Avondale) said budget talks involved Hobbs and Republican leadership. "And then we were informed of what was going on,'' he said.

But Hobbs disagreed with that characterization of budget negotiations.

“I’ll just say about the response or feedback that people weren’t included, that’s just not true, because when we started negotiating the budget with Republicans, we had nearly 40 meetings with Democratic members and their staff to make sure they were included in the process,” Hobbs said.

And she defended the voucher reforms that made it into the budget this year.

“I am proud of the reforms that we got done, especially given that the Republican-controlled Legislature said any reform conversation was dead on arrival,” she said.

That being said, the governor said she would pursue more aggressive reforms next year if Democrats take control of the legislature in November.

She pointed to that agenda she introduced in January that included new enrollment restrictions for the voucher program that failed to gain traction. Under the proposal, students would have to attend public schools at some point in their educational career for at least 100 days in order to become eligible for the voucher program.

The change was designed to remove families from the program that were already paying for private school tuition out of pocket before Republicans expanded the program to all Arizona students in 2022. In January, Hobbs’ office estimated the change would remove nearly 50,000 students from the program and save $244 million.

Wayne Schutsky is a broadcast field correspondent covering Arizona politics on KJZZ. He has over a decade of experience as a journalist reporting on local communities in Arizona and the state Capitol.
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