Last Tuesday, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey delivered his sixth State of the State address in Tucson, highlighting priorities for the new year, including funds for education, job training and broadband connectivity, closure of the state’s largest and oldest prison, and calling out Tucson’s failed sanctuary city initiative.
Dozens of tables filled up at the Tucson Convention Center to watch Ducey deliver the speech, which was also given Monday, Jan. 13 at the state capitol in Phoenix, kicking off the second half of the 54th legislative session.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m proud to report: the state of our state is strong. And the best part is, it’s only getting better,” Ducey told the audience. “Look at all that’s happening around us. Our crime rate is dropping, and school test scores are rising. Our credit rating is up, and our debt is way down. Household incomes have hit a record high, and our poverty rate has dropped faster than any other state in the nation.”
After highlighting advancements in the local economy and Arizona’s growing population, the governor turned to his biggest line item, funding K-12 public education. After the Red for Ed movement pressured the state to reverse recession-era funding cuts in 2018, Ducey promised public school teachers a 20 percent raise by this year.
His 2020 budget includes the final 5 percent of that promise, in addition to a full restoration of “district additional assistance” which can be used flexibly throughout school districts for things like textbooks, staff raises, curriculum updates, building improvements and more.
Ducey also included $15 million in additional funding for the Arizona Teachers Academy, which partners with the state’s public universities and community colleges to provide educational training on all levels. The tuition and fees are waived if graduates of the program commit to work at an Arizona public school.
“This year, we intend to build on our momentum with reforms allowing even more students to go through the Academy,” Ducey said. “Students are seeking degrees in math and science, teachers specializing in educating blind children. Arizona’s future depends on these educators. Let’s provide them with access so they can get to the front of the classroom—debt free.”
Another education initiative is “Project Rocket” for struggling schools. Ducey says this will provide additional funding and access to “proven strategies” to help improve outcomes at low-performing public schools. Schools rated “D” or “F” by the Arizona Department of Education may opt into the three-year pilot program to receive grants aimed at helping them close the achievement gap.
For higher education, Ducey’s “New Economy Initiative,” will provide funding to the state’s three public universities (University of Arizona, Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University) to “boost post-secondary attainment and increase the number of graduates in critical high-demand industries.”
As part of that plan, ASU will design and launch a new center for engineering education and research, UA will hone in on personalized medicine and “cutting edge healthcare delivery models,” while NAU will work to prepare students for working in the healthcare industry, specifically in mental and behavioral health fields.
Ducey announced the commitment of $28 million for an acceleration of expanding Interstate 10 between Tucson and Phoenix. The money would go toward a new six-lane bridge over the Gila River. Ducey said 62,000 people drive over the 56-year-old bridge every day, equalling 23 million drivers a year.
“The Phoenix-Tucson corridor is an economic artery for our state and it needs expanding,” Ducey said. “It’s time to accelerate completion of I-10’s widening, in both directions, between our two largest cities.”
Another $50 million in Ducey’s budget proposal will go toward installing 500 miles of broadband conduit and fiber optic cable along Arizona highways. These “Smart Highway Corridors” will be located on Interstate 17 between Sunset Point and Flagstaff, Interstate 40 between borders with California and New Mexico and Interstate 19 between Tucson and Nogales.
A Florence Fiasco
A major development within Ducey’s address is his commitment to close the Florence state prison. This facility is Arizona’s oldest, and currently houses more than 3,800 incarcerated men.
As part of the transition, existing staff from the Florence prison will be relocated to the Eyman prison, less than three miles away. The Governor’s Office says additional staff will allow the Eyman complex to be fully staffed, eliminating vacancies and “providing inmates with better access to programs and other services, such as enhanced second chance programs.”
No correctional employees will lose their jobs as a result of the move. The office estimates this will save taxpayers $247 million over three years.
The Town of Florence says they had no idea of Governor Doug Ducey’s intentions to close the Florence state prison until he announced it publicly during his State of the State address.
In a statement posted on the town’s website, it says staff were “startled” by the sudden announcement but they are committed to working closely with the state legislature and other regional partners to “better understand the impacts of this decision and to strive to find a solution that is appropriate for our community, our residents, and the many employees that call Florence home for eight to twelve hours per day.”
While their jobs are still secured for now, the Town of Florence believes this new development will still have lasting effects on their community.
Their statement says without legislative action, the community’s resources could “dry up and could radically change this historic community.”
“Preliminary estimates on impact show that the Town could lose up to 3,600 prisoners and hundreds of permanent jobs upon the closure of the facility,” the statement reads. “The loss of these residents and their associated revenue could equate to a $1.3 million direct impact on Town services (or about 13% of its total state-shared revenue). To a rural community like ours, this is not inconsequential.”
While closing Arizona’s largest prison is a statement within itself, the effects it will have on the incarcerated population are still unknown. ACLU of Arizona Community Partnership Coordinator Khalil Rushdan responded to Ducey’s address, saying that the closure of any prison is a step in the right direction, but the governor made no mention of bringing people home to their families and communities sooner.
“He also did not mention that just last month, the Department of Corrections announced it would reopen a closed prison unit to house women because Perryville Women’s prison was filled to capacity,” Rushdan said in a press release. “Where one prison closes, another opens. That is not the kind of bold criminal justice reform Arizona needs right now. We have been aggressively locking people up for years, so we must aggressively work to safely and effectively lower the prison population.”
Florence still anticipates a need for carceral facilities, adding in their statement that “should new facilities be desired, Florence has available land that is zoned and planned for this type of use.”
Ducey also wants to expand Second Chance Centers, which provide necessary resources for incarcerated individuals to more easily transition back into society. They help with job readiness, enrollment in health care, transportation services and more.
On this note, Ducey also announced a decision to change the name of the Department of Corrections to the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry, in order to “better reflect its mission.”
Other key priorities listed by the governor include:
• Additional funding for the Department of Child Safety
• An elimination of all state income taxes for veterans’ military pensions
• A suicide prevention action plan
• An executive order requiring three regulations to be eliminated for every one created
• Funding the purchase of 1,267 body cameras for every Arizona State Trooper
• A rural jobs initiative providing funds for training programs at community college aligned with industry needs
More specific dollar amounts for these initiatives and more will be announced during the roll out of Ducey’s executive budget proposal later this month.