Senators Epstein and Sundareshan Preview Democratic Goals Ahead of the 2024 State Legislative Session

Arizona Democrats at the State Capitol have several policy goals going into the 2024 legislative session. The major ones are:

  • Helping fund affordable housing opportunities.
  • Protecting Arizona’s water supply and environment.
  • Ensuring K-12 education is appropriately funded.
  • Making investments in child and Kids Care programs.
  • Reining in spending in programs like in ESA private school voucher scholarships that are currently draining state fiscal resources from other vital areas that serve the public good.

While they have a supporting ear in Governor Katie Hobb’s office, the key to advancing any portion of their agenda is finding support among the Republican majority leadership in both legislative chambers.

Senate Democratic Leader Mitzi Epstein and Senator Priya Sundareshan graciously took time to discuss the Democratic Legislative Agenda headed into 2024.

The questions and their responses are below.

  • What are at least three legislative goals you and the Senate Democrats would like to pursue in 2024? Please explain. 
Democratic Senate Leader Mitzi Epstein.

“The big three once again will be housing, schools, and water. The important point about housing is affordability. We recognize that Arizona families and Arizona individuals are struggling to pay for stuff. Housing is one of the most important issues. At the beginning of the interim in September, we as the House and Senate Leadership teams together with our leads on these groups created the three workgroups: housing, schools, and water. This was the culmination of their work. They had seven meetings from September to December where they brought in speakers. Many legislators attended those meetings to learn everything they could about the housing issues. So you saw they’ve developed many bills that are the result of it and this new strategy now of doing one bill at a time instead of trying to do a big omnibus bill.”

“We also know that childcare is another affordability issue. We want to address the things families feel the most every day.”

Senator Epstein also advised I ask State Senator Priya Sundareshan about the work Democrats in the Legislature were advancing on the environment. Below is Senator Sundareshan’s response. 

State Senator Priya Sundareshan

“Senate Democrats will continue to introduce bills to protect our water resources for future generations of Arizonans, improve and restore our environmental quality, and prevent pollution and degradation of our air and water. We particularly recognize that decades of siting polluting activities near low-income communities of color means these communities have borne the brunt of the health impacts of pollution.”

“Some examples of environmental bills our caucus will sponsor this year include the following: 

– working to prevent climate change from getting worse, by repealing the state preemption against regulating greenhouse gas emissions and urging the Arizona Corporation Commission to adopt updated renewable energy standards. 

– in the water supply category: protecting rural groundwater through developing local groundwater rules and providing pumping data, and strengthening our Assured Water Supply protections in urban areas by closing loopholes. 

– water quality: establishing protections for watershed health, removing limitations ADEQ to set drinking water standards more protective than federal standards where needed”

“Our Democratic caucus has introduced many of these bills in earlier years, but the Republican majority does not even allow them to get a hearing. However, Arizonans are clamoring for our leaders to address these important issues and should continue to raise their voices (contact your legislators and legislative leadership) to demand these bills come forward this session.”

  • What are at least three budgetary goals you and the Senate Democrats would like to see increased in 2024? Please explain. 

“This year, it’s all about protection, and number two is protect and number three is protect. K-12 is always terribly important. Our caregivers are very important to us too. Our state workers as well. Bottom line, we don’t want to take dinner off the table for our people that do good work.”

Kids Care?

“We would love to see that expanded to I think we got it to 225 percent of the federal poverty level and we’d like to take it up to 250 so that more children can be eligible. I don’t think we’ll have the money to do it this year but we want to make a path to make that happen.”

  • With a projected deficit in the FY 25 budget, what are at least three areas the Senate Democrats will propose reducing or eliminating from the fiscal ledger? Please explain. As a follow-up, do you think these reductions will gain support from the Republicans? Please explain. 

“We’re still looking at some things.  I don’t want to cut anything is the bottom line. In order to make this budget work, it needs to be a collaborative process. The Governor will have her budget come out on January 12. The Republicans have some kind of a budget too. Neither one of them was created with negotiations. They were both sort of in silo. So neither one of them is really going to be the budget. We really need to get together and figure out, in a collaborative way, what’s the right thing to do and, honestly, this deficit has been caused by Republican irresponsibility for so many years.”

“There’s two things among the many things that caused the deficit. The biggest is the runaway train that is the ESA’s (Empowerment Scholarship Accounts) because so many of those students we weren’t paying for at all. They were in private school. We weren’t paying for them. Now, we’re paying for private school. We add paying for private schools to what we pay for. It was a huge expansion of government with no revenues to go with it.”

“Then there is the tax cut for billionaires. That was a huge cut to revenues.”

“So, the Republicans have caused this huge problem and now we will come up with some way to fix it. I don’t know what the answers are right now.” 

  • Is there a chance, especially over the issue of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, that a budget may not be passed until after the scheduled end of the legislative session? Please explain. There may be a follow-up question here

“I hope not. If it goes past July 1, then it’s a government shutdown and there’s too many people who depend on the government which is all of us to help them live so we can’t have a shutdown. But I do think that ESA negotiations have to be part of this. The package that Democrats developed with the Governor is so sensible. Do a background check on teachers. Make sure that students are attending school if you’re going to get any ESA money going to that school. It’s basic stuff.”

  • Please explain at least two ways the Senate Democratic vision for governance is better than the Senate Republican one. 

“Collaboration is the biggest thing. We have lived through in the interim, Republicans have held these committees that have just been echo chambers of what they have already wanted to hear and we have asked them, ‘Will you please let some of the people come in so we have a full view of the issue.’ For instance, there was the air quality committee where we said ‘Could we, after hearing from the Commerce community, bring in health professionals to explain why it’s so important to do something about air pollution and they said no.’ We’ve seen that with the Universities in freedom expression. We’ve seen that with elections. We’ve seen it with committee after committee that they’ve had in this interim where they just don’t want to hear from anyone but themselves.”

“The big difference is Democrats will listen to the whole gamut of people about an issue.”