For Once I Pretty Much Agree with Robert Robb, and Also AZ Voters Deserve to Know if Officials Are Benefitting From Universal ESAs

I am quite surprised, but I seem to be mostly in agreement with Robert Robb’s Substack today. For those who don’t know, Robb is a conservative columnist here in AZ who writes about policy and politics and who I read to keep in touch with mainstream/traditional Republican sentiment.

His Substack today concerned this year’s budget heading to Gov. Hobbs’ desk. He opined that the budget is actually fairly good for progressive policy goals but spent too much for our uncertain economic position mainly due to the log-rolling earmarks for GOP members’ districts. He also opines that Gov. Hobbs did a poor job of explaining the ESA compromise and preparing the ground politically among her own party for the concession. I agree with both these points, so I will republish Robb’s post here since this coincidence of opinion is more rare than a solar eclipse.

Gov. Katie Hobbs is getting harsh reviews from fellow Democrats and anti-voucher activists for the budget she negotiated. This is mostly a function of unrealistic expectations. Given the political reality Hobbs faced, the end product wasn’t bad from a liberal perspective.

That political reality was a MAGA-dominated Republican caucus that showed remarkable cohesion throughout the session and during budget negotiations.

The main complaint from the left about Hobbs was that she didn’t achieve, or insist upon, some sort of limitation on private school vouchers. The GOP caucus never would have agreed to that and undoubtedly would have been willing to shut down state government over it. In fact, an unhealthily sizable faction of the caucus would have gotten a kick out of a government shutdown.

Besides, a cap on the program now would have limited effect and be hard to justify. The overwhelming majority of private school students have already signed up for the vouchers. I don’t think there is a huge pent-up demand for private school enrollment, given the state‘s robust charter school alternatives. But to the extent parents want to enroll new students, what’s the basis for denying them the same support those already attending are receiving?

It was prudent for Hobbs not to risk a government shutdown over the issue. And putting the voucher issue aside, this was a pretty liberal budget.

State government will spend from the general fund $2.2 billion more next year than this. That a 14% increase.

Public K-12 schools actually made out pretty well. They will receive nearly $900 million in additional funding. That includes north of $350 million in new funding above formula adjustments for inflation and enrollment growth. Moreover, the constitutional aggregate expenditure limit is lifted, so the money can be budgeted and spent without additional political drama.

Hobbs also succeeded in converting the bonus money Gov. Doug Ducey had directed based upon test scores to an adjustment in the state aid formula base. That’s nearly $70 million that is now voter protected and by law has to be increased annually to adjust for inflation.

Eligibility for KidsCare, a subsidized health insurance program, was increased from 200% of the federal poverty level to 225%. Housing assistance got a big boost.

Arguably, Hobbs’ management of the Democratic politics regarding the budget could have been better. But, given the adverse reaction fueled by unrealistic expectations, perhaps not. The anti-voucher activists couldn’t have been mollified. Trying to sell Democratic lawmakers on the budget trade-offs she needed to make might have just prematurely unleashed countervailing pressure, making it more difficult for her to avoid a government shutdown on, from her perspective, reasonably favorable terms.

The budget illustrates the extent to which MAGA Republicans aren’t really small-government conservatives.

The budget increases state spending considerably and disburses all of a considerable surplus that had accumulated. There is very little of an anticipated carry-forward cushion for the next two years. If the economy slows or falls into a recession, the state will have to tap the rainy day fund and hope it’s enough.

That’s arguably a necessary consequence of having to deal with a Democratic governor. But it’s also clear that the GOP caucus was held together in part through a spending spree of earmarks.

There are scores of bring-home-the-bacon earmarks for projects of exclusively local import and without any true statewide benefit or impact, the sort of things that should be the responsibility of county and city governments. A lot of them are highly local road improvements and subventions to local law enforcement agencies. But they include such things as a subsidy to a local rodeo.

True fiscal conservatives wouldn’t have run state finances so close to the bone, particularly during a time of considerable economic uncertainty. Agreement probably could have been achieved with Hobbs at a spending level that left more of a cushion in the bank.

In fact, it was more the GOP earmark spending spree that ate up the surplus than the modest and targeted increases Hobbs sought and received.

True fiscal conservatives wouldn’t use general tax resources to fund things, such as road improvements, more appropriately funded through user fees. They wouldn’t have the state pay for things more appropriately the responsibility of county and city governments. And they would allocate state funds based upon some system of prioritization, not the bring-home-the-bacon politics of individual lawmakers.

MAGA Republicans have appropriated the brand of “conservatism”. But, in many ways, and particularly on fiscal matters, they don’t really walk the walk.

Our task now as Democrats is to demonstate to voters in ’24 that the AZGOP has become fiscally irresponsible, corrupt and self-dealing. The use of earmarks to keep their caucus together is shamefully wasteful and corrupt. The Universal ESA program is a wasteful windfall for some of the wealthiest Arizonans that most Arizonans do not like, and do not support. We can and should use this ballooning fat-cat-feeding open trough of taxpayer funds against the AZGOP in coming elections.

We must explain how the AZGOP has corruptly and step-by-step contravened the plain meaning of our Arizona Constitution’s ban on funding private schools to do exactly what is forbidden by the plain meaning of the text. Article 9, section 10 of the Arizona Constitution, also known as the “Aid Clause,” expressly states that: “no tax shall be laid or appropriation of public money made in aid of any church, or private or sectarian school, or any public service corporation.” Yet here we are, doing exactly that, all with the blessing of the wildly imbalanced, ultra-MAGA, stacked, and corrupt AZ Supreme Court and the supposedly “rule of law” “revere the constitution” AZGOP. As Robb points out, the AZGOP would absolutely have shut down our state government to preserve this corrupt and unconstitutional program that they have spent well over a decade scheming and planning to enact.

We can also use the Universal ESA program effectively against individual candidates. For example, CD6 U.S. Rep. Juan Ciscomani has six school-age kids enrolled in private schools, qualifying him to claim over $30K in AZ Universal ESA vouchers. Is he gorging himself from the government’s bean wagon? Are Arizona taxpayers paying to send his kids to private and exclusive religious schools? My guess is yes. We should certainly demand that state and federal officeholders here in AZ disclose whether they are receiving such benefits. So far as I’m aware there is no current requirement that such tax benefits be disclosed by public office holders such as Ciscomani, so unless he – and people in similar positions – tells the voters, we may never know if this “so-called” conservative (really just another MAGA fanatic) is latched on to Arizona taxpayers’ teats for WAY more benefits than he pays in taxes.

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