Story originally published on AZCentral.com | By Maria Polletta
There were a few familiar threads: a focus on education, anecdotes about standout Arizonans, the inevitable nods to tax reforms and limited government.
But overall, Gov. Doug Ducey’s 2021 State of the State address diverged sharply in look, length and feel from those delivered during the first six years of his tenure.
To minimize the spread of COVID-19, Ducey gave his Monday speech virtually from his Executive Tower office, not in front of the usual audience of lawmakers and advocates at the House of Representatives.
And his tone was noticeably somber compared to last year: Nearly 17 minutes of the 22-minute speech — Ducey’s shortest to date — were devoted to the “vicious” trajectory of the virus.
“In so many ways, an extremely tough year brought out the best in us,” the Republican leader said, thanking health care workers, Arizona National Guard members and others on the front lines.
But he acknowledged that, sometimes, “our best wasn’t enough,” noting the pandemic has taken “some 10,000 lives in our state alone” and “left nothing but grief in its path.”
“All agree the pandemic remains the most significant threat we face, and it will require vigilant attention for months to come,” Ducey said, pressing schools to get students caught up in classrooms and suggesting some remote work arrangements for state employees may become permanent.
“The risk is still serious.”
Ducey defends handling of pandemic
Arizona for a second time is considered one of the world’s worst COVID-19 hotspots, as it grapples with a spike exacerbated by the holiday season. Climbing caseloads are overwhelming hospitals, spurring some Phoenix-area facilities to temporarily reject incoming emergency transports and hospital transfers.
Late last year, a team of University of Arizona researchers wrote in a memo to the state Department of Health Services that without additional public health interventions, Arizona “risks a catastrophe on a scale of the worst natural disaster the state has ever experienced.”
The governor nonetheless announced no plans to step up mitigation measures or expand aid on Monday, instead using the speech to defend his handling of the pandemic.
“From the very outset of COVID-19, there have been disagreements about how to deal with it,” he said. “And in my 50-plus meetings with the press, I’ve heard endless variations of the same question: Why not more and longer lockdowns?”
“It’s a question that only makes sense if you forget about everything else — all the other troubles that lockdowns set in motion,” he continued. “If we’re really all in this together, then we have to appreciate that for many families, ‘lockdown’ doesn’t spell inconvenience, it spells catastrophe.”
Ducey also took an indirect shot at city leaders such as Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Tucson Mayor Regina Romero, saying he had no desire to “hand over the keys to mayors who have expressed every intention of locking down their cities.”
At the same time, he bristled at some Republican lawmakers’ attempt to overturn the emergency declaration he’d issued last March.
“Why not end the public health emergency?” he said. “It’s simple. Because we are in a public health emergency.”
Gallego wasted no time firing back at Ducey after he concluded his address, saying city leaders deserved a governor who would work with them to “discuss solutions, rather than scoring cheap shots.”
“It is not lockdown or nothing,” the Democratic mayor wrote on Twitter, calling the lack of new prevention measures disappointing.
“The numbers in AZ speak for themselves. Our current actions are not working, and we are losing too many lives. We need state leadership now.”
Ducey: ‘It’s time to get our students back where they belong’
Ducey also tackled K-12 education in the context of the pandemic, advocating for a swift return to in-person learning for all students.
He said children participating in distance learning had lost out on “experiences that can’t be duplicated on a computer screen.”
“In strange, difficult circumstances, parents and teachers have done their resourceful best,” he said. “But it’s time to get our students back where they belong.”
Though remote learning decisions are largely up to school districts, Ducey said the state would “not be funding empty seats or allowing schools to remain in a perpetual state of closure” — a remark many interpreted as a threat to defund virtual learning.
A 2020 report from the Arizona auditor general identified more than a dozen school districts headed for “financial distress,” a number that has almost certainly grown given dips in funding tied to lower enrollment. Statewide, Arizona schools are down an estimated 50,000 students.
Schools Superintendent Kathy Hoffman called Ducey’s remarks “a slap in the face” to educators who have taught from home since March.
“What I would have liked to hear from the State of the State is a commitment to fully fund our schools because we do not have a state budget shortfall,” Hoffman said in an interview.
Ducey’s chief of staff later addressed the backlash on Twitter, saying Ducey was not implying the state would punish schools for distance learning but underscoring that “the money will follow the student” if families opt to change schools during the pandemic.
The governor also urged the state to put funding toward helping students who have fallen behind during his address.
COVID-19 dangers have spurred hundreds of Arizona educators to resign, according to a survey from the Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association, and Ducey said the pandemic exacerbated an “achievement gap” affecting students of color and those in low-income communities.
“Distance learning has not been good for these students, who often don’t have Wi-Fi or a laptop available,” the governor said. “So, starting now, let’s direct resources to helping these children catch up. Summer school, longer school days, one-on-one targeted instruction, tutoring — it should be our goal that every student graduates high school on time and at grade level.”
Outgoing state Sen. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, thanked the governor for “highlighting the hidden and equally devastating costs of the pandemic,” saying it was time to “get our children back in school” and “bring them up to grade level quickly.”
Tax cut proposal likely on the way
Rather than focusing on strengthening the state’s social safety net, as Democratic lawmakers had hoped, Ducey called for tax cuts and changes to tax law.
“My goal has been to make Arizona the best place in America to live, work and do business by letting Arizonans keep more of their hard-earned money,” he said. “As other states chase away opportunity with their new taxes, why on earth would we ever want to follow their failed and depressing example?”
Ducey asked lawmakers to “work together to reform and lower taxes and preserve Arizona’s good name as a responsible, competitive state” this session.
He also suggested reducing the government’s footprint by eliminating “unnecessary state buildings” as employees work remotely, though he did not provide any details.
The governor then rattled off a list of secondary priorities, such as expanding COVID-19 liability protections for businesses and securing a new tribal gaming compact.
“Let’s work on broadband expansion, greater access to telemedicine, better roads and bridges, continuing to be a global leader on water innovation, better equipment and training for law enforcement, criminal justice reform and guarding against wildfires, so we stay on top of that ever-present risk,” he said.
Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Glenn Hamer called the speech “powerful,” applauding Ducey’s focus on lowering taxes, expanding business liability protections and avoiding lockdowns.
Yuma County Supervisor Jonathan Lines, former chair of the Arizona Republican party, also said Ducey showed “great leadership” in discussing vaccine rollout plans and “much needed tax reform.”
But Democratic lawmakers and progressive advocacy groups were quick to pan the governor for what they called a tone-deaf address that ignored Arizonans in crisis.
Sen. Martín Quezada, D-Glendale, pointed out that Ducey “said nothing about streamlining our overly complicated and ineffective unemployment insurance program, or increasing the second lowest in the nation amount.”
“He said nothing about providing funds to help struggling families who can’t make next month’s rent or mortgage or extending the eviction moratorium and making the process to apply for it more simple,” Quezada said.
Community organizer Ronnie Wollenzier posted a video to Twitter contending Ducey had “willfully ignored” struggling constituents, costing people “their lives, their jobs and their homes.”
And environmental justice organization Chispa Arizona mocked Ducey for “touting tourism and tax cuts while 1 in 3 families experience food insecurity.”