The Week at the Arizona Capitol: Jan. 12-15

This is first weekly roundup of news from the Capitol as a part of my Bolles Fellowship covering the Legislature in Phoenix. The weekly roundups focus on the bigger news, as well as some quirky details, from the Legislature. This appeared on Arizona Sonora News on Jan. 15, 2015.

Arizona Capitol

Protesters and interested citizens gathered at the grounds of the Capitol in Phoenix for the opening day of the legislative session on Jan. 12.

PHOENIX – With family and guests in tow, members of Arizona’s 52nd Legislature were sworn in on Monday wearing white carnations.

White carnations are a traditional symbol wishing good luck. With a deficit projected to hit $1 billion, and a huge debt owed to public schools and Gov. Ducey’s pledge of no new taxes, the solons might need all the luck they can get.

Sen. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, will continue his role as Senate president and Rep. David Gowan, R-Sierra Vista, became Speaker of the House, succeeding former Rep. Andy Tobin.

State of the State

Education played a starring role in the governor’s first State of the State address and is expected to the subject of much haranguing this session.

The governor’s goals include more school choice for students and utilizing empty schools and classrooms. Ducey also said his “Classrooms First Initiative” would not spend “less in the classroom than last year, but more.” He alluded to cuts coming to administrative costs in schools.

Ducey called on the Legislature to settle the lawsuit in which a judge ordered the state to pay the schools $336 million for failing to properly fund K-12 schools during the recession years. He also said the schools should be reasonable and put the lawsuit behind them. “It’s time to stop paying lawyers and start paying teachers,” he said earning him a standing ovation as well as groans.

Democratic legislative leaders responded by calling on the governor to restore funding to the state’s schools. In a statement, Senate minority leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, said Arizona students are studying from outdated textbooks in crowded classrooms due to funding cuts from Republicans in the Legislature.

“We have an obligation to restore K-12 inflation funding,” said House minority leader Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, in a statement. “Instead of finding a way to meet that obligation, Republicans are wasting money on lawsuits to shirk that responsibility.”

Civics test requirement

Arizona students will need to brush up on their government textbooks as both houses of the Legislature wasted no time passing the nation’s first civics test requirement for high school graduation.

The civics test would be identical to the one given for the U.S. naturalization process. Making that 100-question test a requirement for high school students to pass to graduate is another action on education Ducey called for in his State of the State address.

Sen. Steve Farley, D-Tucson, proposed an amendment to the bill that would require members in both houses of the Legislature to pass the civics test before the bill would pass. That amendment failed.

Arizona high school students will not be required to take the exam until 2017.

Democratic detractors to the requirements said the bill did not address the real problem and instead only required “rote memorization” of the answers.

“It’s simply how well can our students parrot,” said Sen. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe. “I think that we would prefer to have students who are critical in their thinking.”

Nonetheless, the bill passed with Republican support as well as a few Democrats. House majority leader Steve Montenegro, R-Avondale, said he was proud with the discourse in both parties as the bill flew through the Legislature. He added that everyone would “agree that there are certain facts our students should know as they leave high school” – with civics knowledge being among them.

Check out the questions here.

D.C. lobbyist

Ducey took pride and enjoyed the applause in announcing the closure of Arizona’s lobbying office in the nation’s capital as another measure to trim state spending.

“There will be at least one less lobbyist in Washington. Why does the state of Arizona need an office and a paid lobbyist in Washington, D.C.?’” Ducey asked during his speech. “The short answer is, we don’t.”

Ryan Serote, former Gov. Jan Brewer’s federal relations director, was the one-person office in Washington and earned a $125,000 salary.

That cut represents about 0.0125 percent of the state’s projected $1 billion budget hole.

Hiring freeze

Ducey announced a hiring freeze for state government. This will effect state agencies, but he said it would not harm “vital areas” such as public safety and child safety. The hiring freeze was one of the specific actions the governor outlined to balance the budget without raising taxes.

Luis Schmidt, president of a local Phoenix chapter of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, a public employee union, said the action highlights the governor’s disconnect with public employees.

“He called out the deadbeat dads,” Schmidt said referencing part of Ducey’s speech, “but I hope at the same time he doesn’t forget about his public employees.”

Rain on the lobbying parade

Mother Nature tried to wash out a couple of lobbying luncheons on Tuesday. Some heavy rain around midday forced the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors-Arizona to abandon its tables on the Senate Lawn but still served food under the overhead cover of the Senate building.

The Arizona Association of Realtors managed to keep a roof over its head on Wesley Bolin Plaza as it served lunch in a large tent.

View this story on Arizona Sonora News here.

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