Earlier today (May 12, 2023,) Arizona Governor Katie Hobbs signed the FY 2023-24 budget approved in bipartisan votes in the Arizona State Legislature earlier in the week.

In signing the measure, the Governor, in an official press release, noted:

“Today, we showed what happens when pragmatic leaders come together and compromise to get things done for Arizonans. While it isn’t perfect, this budget is an important step towards making housing more affordable, building more roads, bridges, and broadband access, expanding children’s health insurance, and investing in our public schools. I’m glad legislative leaders were able to come together to deliver for Arizona, and I look forward to our continued partnership.”

The Governor is right on several fronts.

As mentioned in earlier articles this week on the budget, there is much to be happy about in the budget from a Democratic perspective.

She is also right that, from a Democratic perspective, the budget (and the process that led up to its passage) was not perfect.

Commenting on the budget, the process, and the Democratic perspective, Republican political consultant Tyler Montague offered:

“I think Democrats might insist on more involvement next time, but legislative leaders went about this the right way. Getting too many cooks in the kitchen would have been tons of drama. They gained buy-in by letting them each direct some one-time money. Dems chose to keep their share pooled. In the end, it was something they could live with.”

A View from Arizona Democratic State Senators.

Most Democrats who voted for the budget did so by taking the pragmatic approach the Governor cited in her statement.

Arizona Legislative District (LD) Four State Senator Christine Marsh issued a release to her constituents, proclaiming that the budget, despite its shortcomings (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) and the way the process was conducted and delivered, was the best for Arizonans in years.

She relayed:

“While the budget that passed the Senate Wednesday morning is far from perfect, I am proud of how hard our Democratic caucus fought for the priorities of our constituents. We managed to secure:

$300 million in one-time FY24 K-12 funding
$88.6 million in new, ongoing K-12 funding
A lifted Aggregate Expenditure Limit for next year
$150 million Housing Trust Fund Deposit
$60 million for Homeless Shelter and Services
Legalized and appropriated funding for drug testing equipment
Expanded KidsCare to cover an additional 12,000 low-income children
However, I am incredibly disappointed in the process and some important items which were not included in the budget. Legislative Democrats were not included in negotiations until the 11th hour, and the budget does not include a cap on the universal Empowerment Scholarship Account program, which threatens the state’s financial security. Despite fighting hard the entire session to get even a moderate cap in place, the majority refused to even consider it.

I’m also disappointed in the majority party’s threats of stripping Democratic priorities out of the budget if we did not have at least six Democrats vote yes. In fact, they had already taken our stuff out of the budget and had to put it back in in the middle of the night, delaying our vote on the feed bill until about 4:30AM.

This budget was the best we could expect. Had this budget failed, the options on the horizon would have been far worse.

Despite these many shortcomings, I believe the budget was a win for LD 4’s priorities and is the best budget we’ve seen in decades, and I was ultimately proud to vote for most of the budget bills, including the feed bill.”

LD Nine State Senator Eva Burch, who also approved of the included Democratic budget priorities, issued a video on social media, repeating many of the same themes as Senator Marsh, namely not to make the perfect the enemy of the good. Please view the video below.

Save Our Schools Arizona is still Peeved

Save Our Schools Arizona immediately issued a statement after the release of the budget, condemning it for not curbing the growth of ESA voucher accounts and the Governor for not trying hard enough to do so in her negotiations with Republicans.

“The absence of a solution on the ESA voucher program in the K-12 budget negotiated by Governor Hobbs and passed today by the legislature is a flagrant betrayal of public education. It is abundantly clear that the failure to slow the growth of universal vouchers will accelerate the dismantling of public education, bankrupt our state, and rob desperately needed funds for schools, roads, public safety, water projects, health care, and more.”

“Governor Hobbs failed to fulfill her promise to 1.1 million public school students when she vowed to slow the growth of the universal ESA voucher program. Through inaction, the governor and legislature are enabling ESA vouchers to double in the next year, meaning the state will soon be spending $1 billion per year to subsidize private education options, in most cases for kids who already attend private school. Make no mistake: the end game is to starve and destroy public education. Pro-public education lawmakers must stand up to out-of-state, deep-pocketed special interests who only see Arizona children as backpacks full of cash.”

“Failure to slow the growth of the ESA voucher program carries far-reaching and irreversible consequences for Arizona students and families. The taxpayer dollars siphoned away to universal ESA vouchers this year alone could have funded $10,000 pay raises for 35,000 educators to help address Arizona’s growing teacher retention crisis.”

“The time to fight for public education is now. Not next year, and not in 2025. By all projections, by then it will be too late. The answer here does not lie in electoral politics; it lies in convincing our elected politicians to take a firm and principled stand for the 92% of Arizona families who choose and rely on our local public schools.”

“For our part, we will continue to demand and work toward real solutions to fully fund and prioritize public education. We will not stop until Arizona reverses the tide of school privatization and fully invests in our neighborhood public schools, educators, and students.”

Later when asked to elaborate on the statement and the political realities of the moment like were there the votes to pass the budget with ESA growth containment, Save Our Schools Director Beth Lewis commented:

“In this budget process, rolling back ESA vouchers was not prioritized and was not pushed hard enough during negotiations. The reality is, Superintendent Horne would likely be the first to tell you that the program has grown too big too fast and the brakes need to be pumped so that ESA voucher students have their needs met. It does not appear the work to whip the votes for ESA rollback was taken seriously.”

Did the Democrats Get the Best Deal Possible?

Possibly although there are commentators like Laurie Roberts and E.J. Montini who are both busting a gut writing columns criticizing the Governor over the strategy and tactics she employed in the budget negotiations.

Roberts says Hobbs caved.

Montini even started hinting at the Governor becoming the next Kyrsten Sinema.

Those assertions may be a bit much.

Honestly, it is not surprising the voucher expansion survived this budget process. There was no reality where Republicans were going to undo it one year after passing the measure.

It is a little more surprising that a cap on voucher growth was not, apparently, seriously entertained. Republicans may have still universally opposed it. As I said in a previous article. This is not the Bob Dole, George HW Bush, John McCain, or Mitt Romney Republican Party anymore. They can no longer claim to be the party of fiscal responsibility. They are not even (and this is really scary) the party of Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush anymore. These MAGA Republicans would probably squeeze every possible hidden tax cut (the scholarships) for their rich friends and themselves before restoring fiscal sanity to the state balance sheets.

Maybe the Governor, knowing who was on the other side of the negotiating table, was right to not waste time in pursuing ESA growth in budget talks and to remind readers (and pundits like Roberts and Montini,) she and the Democrats did, as Senator Marsh said, get the best budget for the people and the state in years.

But, as Beth Lewis and others alluded to in off-the-record comments, you do not know unless you try.

As mentioned in my last article on the budget, there is a learning curve here and the Democrats and the Governor have probably learned a lot from this teachable moment and will know what to do better when the budget negotiations for FY 25 start.

They will need that when they try to undo what Senator Mitzi Epstein and Representative Andres Cano call “the Republican’s Alt-Schools ESA voucher program.”

Stay Tuned.