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Ducey to push K-12 funding, opioid crackdown in Legislature

Posted at 12:18 PM, Jan 07, 2018

More money for public schools, a crackdown on opioids and more treatment options, an overhaul of state water policy and new initiatives to cut down on repeat criminal offenders top Gov. Doug Ducey's priorities this year, and Republican leaders in the Legislature appear to be on board.

Ducey needs to boost school funding again in his fourth budget proposal as he faces a re-election battle this year and strong public sentiment that the state's schools remain woefully underfunded and teachers underpaid. Doing that without raising taxes will be difficult, and Ducey has been scrambling to find the cash to do something big this year.

"I'm proud of what we've been able to accomplish, that we've been able to put $700 million additional dollars into K-12, that we've been able to pass Prop 123," the Republican governor said in an interview Thursday. "But I realize that more investment is needed and necessary."

Ducey has pushed his agencies to find cash to redirect to education.

Senate President Steve Yarbrough said there may be an effort to issue bonds for new school construction and maintenance, freeing up cash for school districts to use, possibly for teacher raises.

Details are expected Monday in Ducey's state of the state address and later in the week when he rolls out his budget plan.

Education advocates are pushing for big money, outlining a plan on Thursday that would generate nearly $1 billion for schools with a combination of tax increases, freezes to scheduled corporate tax cuts and cuts to private school tax credits. Several of them reiterated their call for the state's elected leadership to provide adequate funding at a rally at the Capitol on Saturday.

Democratic Sen. Katie Hobbs, the minority leader, said Ducey will be hard-pressed to come up with enough money to make a big dent in the school funding deficit.

"There is no money -- so no, it's going to be sprinkles," she said. "It's too bad he's put himself in a corner and refused to raise revenue."

The governor hasn't revealed any legislative details for addressing what he calls an "opioid emergency," but Yarbrough and House Speaker J.D. Mesnard have been briefed. They are expected to sponsor the legislation.

Ducey's Medicaid agency has freed up $27 million for addiction treatment, according to a legislative document.

"We're going to protect people with chronic pain, and we're going to have proper treatment for people with addiction," Ducey said in the interview. "What we're talking about here are bad actors, and they're going to be held accountable on every level."

On water policy, the governor's office has been working for months to craft the first major changes since the Groundwater Management Act of 1980. With potential cuts to the state's share of the Colorado River and Arizona's population now topping 7 million, Ducey believes it's time to update state water policy.

"It's the responsibility of elected leadership to make sure that we're laying the groundwork for future growth," Ducey said. "And we want the biggest possible policy prescription around water to secure our future, but we want to involve the Legislature, and we want to involve leadership and we want to involve the different constituencies, so the state of Arizona can speak with one voice on water."

Coming up with funding to cut prison recidivism is also a priority. Ducey wants to create job training centers for soon-to-be released prisoners.

Ducey, Yarbrough and Mesnard all said revamping Arizona's tax code may be a major issue because the effects of the new federal tax overhaul are not yet fully understood. The state usually "conforms" its tax laws to federal law.

"Conformity has now been fundamentally obliterated," Mesnard said. "What we would be doing is figuring what we are going to piggyback on versus not."

GOP lawmakers won't stand for increased revenue from conformity, he added.

While not yet clear, it's possible that adopting the federal changes could net tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in state tax revenue because of the doubling of the federal standard deduction and limits on deducting state and local taxes.

Ducey is being cautious since changes won't be needed until 2018 taxes are filed more than a year from now.

"We want to make sure we have all the facts before we start having a push one way or another," he said.