Wednesday, October 2, 2019

A Tale of Two Sessions



Introduction

It's long been said that our state's budget reflects the priorities of those who crafted it and that is as true this year as any. Arizonans sometimes view what happens at the Legislature as specific to each session but the reality is that it often takes work over several sessions to build consensus and support for policy initiatives. Despite being a part-time Legislature, our members of the Senate Democratic Caucus, working with staff, are on the job throughout the year to build stakeholder support for sound public policy that addresses the many and varied issues facing our constituents and the state. We are committed to working across the aisle on the issues that affect the lives of Arizonans and, when bipartisan consensus cannot be achieved, advocating for issues that will move us forward as a state.

The challenges facing Arizona are many and range from increasing investments in our education system from preschool through college, responsible stewardship of our environment, criminal justice and prison reform, common sense gun safety measures, investing in our infrastructure, protecting a woman's right to choose and improving access to voting and the initiative process for every citizen.

There were efforts this year to create a bipartisan budget that addressed those challenges. After all, every Arizonan contributes to our state budget and how their hard-earned tax dollars are spent is supposed to be determined, at least in theory, by those they elect to represent them at the state capitol. This year's budget, however, was ultimately approved along partisan lines. While some of our Democratic ideas were included, this year's budget was entirely crafted by, and largely reflects the priorities of, the party that holds the majority in each chamber and the executive.

As we prepare for the upcoming legislative session in January, the Senate Democratic Caucus is sharing this look back at last session to answer the question, "What would the Democrats do if they were in power?"

We offer this as a glimpse into an Arizona that could be.


Budget

Our caucus took the rare step this year of crafting our own budget that reflects our priorities for Arizona. We went through this time-consuming process with the hope that it would earn us a seat at the budget negotiating table for the first time in well over a decade. We did it because we believe that the 43% of Arizona voters who chose us to represent them deserve to have their priorities reflected in our state budget. That did not happen.

We went into the budget process with $840 million in one-time revenue due to a combination of a healthy economy and deliberate cuts to state government over the past decade.

But rather than invest in key services like education and infrastructure, Republicans once again chose to permanently reduce Arizona's ability to raise revenue. These tax policy choices have made Arizona's revenue structure less progressive and increased the tax burden on the poor and middle class.

Democrats fought another year of massive tax cuts. We fought for better schools for all of our children, we fought for repairing our crumbling highways, roads and bridges, and we fought for working locks in our prisons and funding to help our most vulnerable populations.

Our budget proposed a much more substantial commitment to address the crisis of homelessness that is gripping our state, which has grown 150 percent since 2015. Rather than helping our most vulnerable, however, this budget prioritized handing out $346 million in tax cuts, which balloon to $531 million by 2022.

We had an opportunity this session to work in a bipartisan way and take the next big step, building upon 20 by 2020, in restoring funding to our desperately underfunded classrooms. Instead, this budget puts funding for Arizona schools at serious risk with the sunset of the Trump tax cuts in 2025, the looming Prop 123 cliff that same year and the possibility of a future recession. Permanently forgoing this revenue for a half-billion-dollar tax cut is irresponsible.

This year's budget leaves human services providers further squeezed, forced to provide mandatory services without sufficient funding and underserve those who desperately need help. It chooses to stash cash in the bank instead of investing in our schools, just so the governor can have his billion-dollar talking point.

Unlike previous years, Democrats had a rare moment of leverage this session and we used it to help increase Arizona’s statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse. We also were able to invest $68 million in District Additional Assistance so our public schools can replace outdated textbooks and computers, while Republicans initially wanted to allocate nothing. These are victories that will leave a lasting legacy for our state.

Revenue
 
Over the last three decades Arizona's Republican legislators and governors have systematically
decreased state revenues. In 29 of the last 30 years, the Legislature has cut taxes worth over $5 billion in annual revenue, when adjusted for inflation and population growth.

Fiscal conservatives have long claimed that inflation plus population growth should be the measuring rod of fiscal discipline. However, given our Republican colleagues’ zeal for cutting taxes, the FY’20 budget is less about fiscal discipline and more about deliberately and systemically underfunding state government. The JLBC analysis of the historical trend of tax cutting is illustrated in this graph below showing government spending as a portion of economic activity (personal income).

If the tax cuts over the past 30 years were restored, the General Fund budget would be over $5 Billion greater. The result is that Arizona simply does not and cannot, without a two-thirds vote of each chamber and the Governor’s signature, raise the revenue that is necessary to fund essential governmental functions.

The tax cuts included in this year's state budget are the continuation of that legacy and will leave our citizens, and the businesses we need to thrive, facing a fiscal disaster in five years.

In 2017, the passage of the Trump tax cuts required the Legislature to conform Arizona's income tax code to the federal changes. Simple conformity would have resulted in an additional $274 million that could have gone toward fixing our neglected roads and meeting the millions of dollars of capital needs our schools and universities have accrued after years of underfunding.

Republicans used conformity as another excuse to forgo state revenue via tax cuts. They claimed the cuts were necessary to make conformity revenue neutral, but the cuts are in excess of $300 million, expanding to $500 million in five years – far more than needed to "offset" the increase.

Compounding the issue is the fact that the federal individual income tax provisions expire in 2025, while the state's "offset" cuts stay in place. This means the money Republicans allegedly "offset" to pay for their cut will disappear, leaving a significant hole in state revenue. Coupled with the end of Prop 123's public education funding that same year means a fiscal cliff that will further complicate Arizona school financing and support.

Infrastructure

Across Arizona our roads and bridges are in disrepair due to years of the Legislature sweeping highway funds to pay for tax cuts. Only recently have we begun to restore those funds, but the damage has been done. A modern infrastructure system is crucial, not only for the safety of Arizona drivers, but for businesses to be competitive in getting their product to market. This year's budget saw some good investment in projects like widening I-17 north of Phoenix, but it also saw more than $30 million go to road projects in Republican districts. Tax dollars should be prioritized for the roads and bridges that are in critical need of repair, not projects in specific lawmakers' districts.


Education

K-12
Arizona students are sitting in overcrowded classrooms, using outdated textbooks and technology, and lack basic school supplies. Many students do not have a permanent or prepared teacher and are likely missing a nurse, counselor, or librarian. Despite 20 by 2020, funding for K-12 is still far below 2008 levels. When adjusted for inflation, the state funds every student at $947 dollars less than we did in 2008.


That is why our proposed budget accelerated the restoration of District Additional Assistance by appropriating additional $150 million ongoing to replace outdated curriculum, textbooks and computers, fund non-classroom personnel and repair crumbling buildings. Republicans initially wanted to give less than half of that amount, but thanks to our efforts this year's budget included an additional $68 million for DAA, though only as a one-time investment.

Arizona's student to counselor ratio is the worst in the nation, with 905 students for every one school counselor. That is why we pushed for, and Republicans agreed to, allocate $20 million for schools to fund either a school counselor, social worker, or school resource officer. If all of these funds were used for counselors, the ratio would be lowered to approximately 373 students per counselor. While this will not address all our school safety needs, this is a critical step in ensuring the social-emotional needs of all children are met.

Arizona's tribal leaders have for years been requesting additional help in the Office of Indian Education, which serves as a liaison between tribal schools and outside agencies to provide resources for Native American students to meet their educational and cultural needs. Our budget would have allowed the Department of Education to add four full-time staff to its existing staff of one full-time and one part-time. It's time we prioritize the education of our Native American students.


The allocations made towards K-12 education in our budget represent what Arizonans have demanded time and time again: fund our schools properly. 88% of Arizonans believe there is a need for additional funding for our public schools and voters support investments in education. Our budget reflects those values of Arizonans by putting education first.

For years, Democratic legislators have introduced bills to provide financial transparency and accountability of Arizona's charter schools and this year saw an opportunity for meaningful charter school accountability reform. We support charter schools and send our own children and grandchildren to them. But we have known for quite a while that there are charter school operators who take advantage of the system to enrich themselves with taxpayer dollars meant for educating students. We have consistently asked for the same thing that is expected of any entity that utilizes public dollars: be accountable, be transparent and demonstrate that all your decisions are in the best interest of the children that charter schools serve. Unfortunately, wealthy charter school operators, their lobbyists and lawmakers who support them, and even some who profit themselves, were able to derail this effort. We will push for reform once again next session.

This year the Legislature made positive changes to how English language learners (ELL) are taught in Arizona. This is a good first step that must be followed by a full repeal of Prop 203, the harmful "English only" law that forces students with no or limited English language skills into a one-size-fits-all program known as structured English immersion. Our teachers must have the flexibility to teach to each student's needs.

Higher Education
The budget we put together made a critical investment in higher education – for both our public universities and community colleges.

We believe making a commitment to fund our state universities beyond providing "one-time" investments is the best way to ensure tuition costs remain as low and as stable as possible. Per student funding for Arizona universities is 56% below 2008 levels, which equates to $3,742 cut in per-student funding and has shifted costs from the state to students and their families.

Working with Republican colleagues, we were able to include provisions in this year's budget to address the severe physician shortage that Arizona faces by funding an increase in the U of A medical school's capacity to educate students in medicine. This physician shortage is felt most acutely in our rural communities.

In 2015, along with a $99 million cut to universities, the Legislature completely eliminated funding for Maricopa and Pima Community College District operating state aid and STEM and workforce development state aid, and we have failed to restore their funding since then. Our budget proposed fully restoring these funds immediately because investing in our two largest community college districts is vital to keep pace with the growth of our state – especially for high-demand careers in healthcare, public safety, IT and manufacturing.

We believe these long-term investments in higher education are responsible and pragmatic because the best way to see future economic success in Arizona is with a highly skilled workforce.

Social Safety Net

Homelessness
Currently, there are over 36,000 homeless people in Arizona, of which 37% are families, usually a single mom with children. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education reported almost 25,000 public school students experienced homelessness during the 2016-2017 school year. Arizona's Housing Trust Fund represents the only state monies solely dedicated to housing needs, but during the Great Recession its funding was slashed to just $2.5 million dollars until this year's budget made a modest increase. Arizona’s wonderful non-profits that provide critical services and housing for our homeless rely on the Fund for grants to keep their services going. But as the Fund was cut, so was their ability to help our most vulnerable Arizonans. That's why the Senate Democrats made substantial restoration of the State Housing Trust Fund a cornerstone of our budget with a $30 million deposit in Fiscal Year 2020 and $20 million annually thereafter. Investing in the Housing Trust Fund not only brings matching federal dollars back to Arizona, it also encourages private investment in low-income housing. In fact, according to the Arizona Housing Coalition, for every $10 million invested in the Fund, there is the potential for $23 million in economic impact and the creation of 200 jobs annually.

Kinship Care
When DCS removes a child from their home, 43% are placed with relatives, usually grandparents, as it's the first choice of placement. National research confirms that abused and neglected children placed in kinship care experience increased stability, higher levels of permanency and better behavioral and mental health. Kinship caregivers in Arizona caring for a family member typically removed for abuse or neglect, however, receive just $75 per month. That isn't nearly enough to give a child the support they need and keep the household financially stable. That's why our budget would have raised the monthly stipend to $250 while streamlining the child-only application process for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which would result in an additional $164 monthly support for kinship care. We must step up for our kinship families who have already stepped up for Arizona's children.

Sexual Violence
Someone is sexually assaulted every 92 seconds in America and a child is sexually assaulted every 9 minutes. Despite the fact that in 2014 there were 2,445 cases of rape reported and 200 cases of attempted rape, Arizona does not have any state sexual violence funding. That is why our budget directed $5 million to DES for sexual violence programs, including innovative community-based Rape Crisis Centers, available 24/7 and open to survivors without barriers or judgement. Funding comprehensive support for survivors of sexual violence will help them heal and return to life and work.


Healthcare

Women's Reproductive Health
An Arizona woman's right to determine whether, when and how to have children is a fundamental constitutional right that has been chipped away over many years by extremist conservative groups and their legislative allies at the State Capitol. This year saw Republicans gut the state's 211 community information referral program and instead give $7.5 million in unaccountable tax dollars to a questionable Texas non-profit that discourages women from having an abortion. Democrats fought against this outrageous use of state resources for ideological propaganda and will stand vigilant against further erosion of woman's right to choose.

Dental Services for Pregnant AHCCCS Recipients
Gum disease affects approximately 40% of pregnant women and is even more prevalent among low-income women. Left untreated, this can lead to progressively worse oral diseases for the mother. Our budget committed over $4 million to provide comprehensive dental care to eligible pregnant women. Prevention and education on oral hygiene and nutrition would save money by avoiding costly treatments and improve the overall health of both mother and child.

Equal Rights

Democrats made a concerted and prolonged effort this session to have Arizona be the 38th and final state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment because we believe women deserve to earn equal pay for equal work and to be viewed as equal under the law under all circumstances. Sadly, Republicans who supported our effort were bullied by their colleagues to defeat the measure.

We will continue this effort next session along with measures to protect and expand rights for LGBTQ+ Arizonans because no one should be fired from a job or denied housing just because of who they love.

Environment

After months of stakeholder meetings and negotiations, the Drought Contingency Plan was adopted this session. This important measure buys Arizona time before Lake Mead drops to levels where dramatic water reductions will be required. One thing is clear: this action will only be a first step of many needed to ensure our state’s water security. We must work toward a sustainable water future, not spend millions on drilling deeper wells that further drain our already depleted aquifers as this year's Republican budget did. This is a drought and climate change issue, so our state's leaders must convene discussions with a large variety of stakeholders, including scientists, the environmental community and the agricultural community as we move this discussion forward.

While this year's adopted budget begins to address a few environmental issues - like eradication of salt cedars in riverbeds, which we have been advocating for years – Arizona Republicans continue to ignore the ongoing climate crisis. Instead of taking steps to mitigate and adapt to a changing climate by supporting measures like our SCR 1004 and SB 1542, which would have urged a transition to renewable energy and prohibited utility shutoffs in the summer and winter, Republicans swept existing environmental protection funds to avoid spending general fund dollars on the Water Quality Assurance Revolving Fund.

The state needs to make an ongoing commitment to best land management practices that prevent wildfires, promote healthy forests and protect vital watersheds. Our SB 1477 would have been a step in this direction but was thwarted, despite passing the Senate with bipartisan support.

This budget also lacks any additional funding for the State Historic Preservation Office which, among other important roles, ensures compliance with the Antiquities Act. Just last year we saw a state agency completely disregard the Antiquities Act and destroy sacred tribal cultural artifacts. A small appropriation for some more staff would have gone a long way to prevent this from happening again. Instead, Republicans chose to spend a comparable amount on wine promotion. This sends a very clear, insulting message about the Legislature's priorities when it comes to respect for our natural resources and our tribal heritage.

Criminal Justice

When Republicans work with Democrats, the Legislature works for all Arizonans. HB 2466 is a perfect example of Republicans working across the aisle to pass legislation that makes our state safer from those who prey on our most vulnerable. This legislation expands the statute of limitations from 2 years to 12 years after a person reaches the age of 18 for them to file a civil action on damages a person suffered as a minor for either sexual conduct or the failure of a person or organization in authority to report the conduct. This bill will allow Arizonans to finally find justice and closure against their childhood abusers.

Mostly, however, bills sponsored and supported by members of the Senate Democratic Caucus were not considered in crafting the 54th Legislature legislative footprint. Bills that would provide real second chances to individuals who have repaid their debt to society, fund programs that curb incarceration and reduce recidivism, and allocate resources wisely in incarcerating individuals who continue to pose a threat to society were stonewalled by Republicans.

Our SB 1437 would have allowed a person who has successfully complied and completed his or her sentence a chance to be judged on merit instead of a checkbox on an employment application disqualifying them from further consideration. A person who has a job and the ability to be self-sufficient is a person who is less likely to be incarcerated. For most former inmates, finding a job after release is almost impossible.

Gun Safety
Since January 1 of this year, there have been more than 250 mass shootings in the United States. Rather than confronting this epidemic that is ravaging our communities, small and large, Republicans wanted to make it easier for people to carry their loaded weapons into polling booths and on school campuses.


As we do every year, Democrats sponsored several common-sense gun safety bills but, just as happens every year, none of these even got a hearing. Our proposals for universal background checks for gun purchases, extreme risk orders of protection to get guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals and strengthening our laws to prevent children's access to guns in their homes are commonsense measures to address the plague of gun violence that are overwhelmingly supported by the public. A recent poll put public approval for universal background checks at 93% and 80% for extreme risk orders of protection.

Elections
The right to vote is sacred and essential to our democracy. We should have policies that modernize our elections and make it easier, not harder, for eligible Arizonans to vote. Firm in that belief, Senate Democrats sponsored multiple bills this session that would have expanded the hours of operation for early voting locations, allow voting to continue through the weekend before Election Day, and create same-day and automatic voter registration as simple and commonsense proposals to streamline our elections system and make voting as free and fair as possible in Arizona.


Republicans have instead focused their energy on making it harder and more intimidating for people to vote. They passed a bill that requires a person to affirm under penalty of perjury that they are experiencing an emergency in order to vote during the weekend prior to election day.

We should be fully funding our elections to ensure that these are administered in a manner that is secure and timely. This year's Republican budget doesn’t come close to funding our elections, and yet the budget appropriates half a million dollars to the AG’s office for a voter fraud prevention unit even though there is no proof of fraud. We should instead be funding the Secretary of State's office for cybersecurity measures that will secure our elections systems and in fact help prevent the hacking of our elections.

The initiative process, which upholds the will of the people, has been under attack by Republicans for several years. This past session was no exception. SB 1451, which passed along a party-line vote, added restrictions that make it so burdensome and costly for engaged citizens and grassroots organizations to collect signatures that only initiatives backed by special interests will make it to the ballot.

Dark money has hijacked the will of the people. Monies from corporate and special interests that cannot be traced have flooded political campaigns. Democrats believe in transparency and accountability and our SB 1596 would have allowed the identification of original contribution sources of campaigns so the electorate can know to whom the candidates are beholden. Just like all of our elections bills, SB 1596 was never given a hearing in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Conclusion

This is a glimpse into an Arizona that could have been and could still be – a more fair, forward-looking, inclusive state government that provides the building blocks for a better future and offers every Arizonan a chance to achieve their full potential.

Our Republican colleagues love to say that Arizona is the best state in the nation for business. That may be true if you own a large corporation and benefit from corporate taxes that are near zero but is less true if you're a small business owner who pays taxes and relies on government to provide the infrastructure and services needed to succeed.

The fact that Arizona is also the 47th worst state to be a child is a stark indicator that we've neglected our future generations in pursuit of quick business growth. It's possible to be both business friendly and provide education and healthcare for our children, our leaders just need the political will to do so.

Taxpayers understand that government plays an irreplaceable role in their lives and they're willing to pay taxes to fund those services only the state can provide. The decades-long practice of slashing education, roads and healthcare to pay for corporate tax cuts, while shifting most of the cost of state government onto the backs of Arizona's hard-working taxpayers, must be stopped and reversed.

Our vision for Arizona respects every one of our citizens and their right to equal treatment under the law, free from discrimination; their right to collectively bargain for fair pay and working conditions; their right to feel safe from gun violence; and their right to pursue their dreams.

Thank you for taking the time to read our ideas for Arizona. While lengthy, this document does not fully encompass all the issues we dealt with last session or the many issues facing our state.

In the coming months we will continue our work to identify and research pragmatic, commonsense solutions that improve the lives of every Arizonan and further our economic development.

As we turn to preparing our legislative agenda for the upcoming session we will continue our work with stakeholders, legislators of both parties and the people of Arizona. We invite you to participate in our process by emailing SenateDems@azleg.gov and sharing your thoughts on any of these or other issues that should be considered by the Legislature.






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