ICYMI: Governor Ducey named ‘Arizonan of the Year’

Ducey earned title of Arizonan of the Year

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Year one on the Ninth Floor did not begin well for Doug Ducey. The newly elected governor was learning how difficult it is to gear down from a statewide election campaign and gear up immediately to deliver a budget, legislative agenda and State of the State.

The strain on the Ninth Floor was palpable, expressing itself in truly odd ways. There were inner-circle aides hinting at defamation lawsuits against newspaper writers. An angry voice mail from one staffer to an editor, “How does it feel to have egg on your face.”

Then there was the governor’s first meeting with The Arizona Republic Editorial Board, in which he, himself, grew agitatedat routine questions about the budget.

If he hadn’t already, he was about to learn that rough questioning uncommon in the corporate suite is pro forma for anyone who would lead the state.

This was a governor feeling the huge challenges ahead:

» State finances were burdened with large deficits and still reeling from years of anemic growth and generational recession.

» An education-funding lawsuit was threatening to bust the next budget and ignite a constitutional crisis.

By year’s end, Ducey and staff had wrestled down these two bears of the first term, closing 2015 with a policy triumph of such scope it would settle the education lawsuit and open the door to billions of dollars in funding for the state’s public schools.

All of this was accomplished without breaking Ducey’s campaign promise to never raise taxes.

Despite his uncertain start, it is clear to us no single individual had as great an impact on the state of Arizona in 2015 as Gov. Doug Ducey, and it is why we name him our 2015 Arizonan of the Year.

The fiscal house

The Office of the Governor of Arizona is a super-magnet for criticism. In the modern era, virtually every governor has been a polarizing figure, from Fife Symington to Janet Napolitano; from Jan Brewer to Doug Ducey.

Ducey came to office determined to put the state back on firm financial footing after it had careened back into red ink. And that meant holding the line onspending and taxes and courting the blowback such discipline provokes.

His work on the budget came with mixed results.

We criticized him for his cram-down process, a three-day rush that locked those affected by the budget and most legislators out of any meaningful input.

Further, many important state priorities remained seriously underfunded.

But the governor worked with legislative leadership to pound out a spending plan that erased on paper a $1.5 billion deficit covering two budget cycles and put Arizona on more stable footing.

Getting state finances beyond crisis mode was a necessary and important accomplishment. Hard choices were required, and those are difficult to bring about in the normal course of public decision- making.

The budget put state government in a much more secure position to begin planning for the future. Without that stability, progress would be stymied.

The full measure of Ducey’s first budget won’t be known until after his second one is proposed and considered. If it tempers tax cuts with the more pressing need to restore funding to critical state programs, and is enacted in a more participatory and public fashion, then the extreme austerity and cram-down process of his first budget can be seen as arguably necessary given the circumstances. However, it shouldn’t be an ongoing way of managing the state or doing business.

Money for schools

One of the true casualties of the Great Recession has been Arizona public schools. Years of fierce cutbacks have created dire conditions in many K-12 schools, leaving them with declining facilities and teacher shortages. Arizona routinely ranks at the bottom nationally in per-pupil spending.

Last year, the courts ordered the Legislature to start paying $331 million a year in voter-mandated inflation funding. GOP lawmakers appealed the decision. For seven months of court-supervised mediation, the plaintiffs — Arizona Education Association, Arizona Association of School Business Officials and the Arizona School Boards Association — and GOP legislative leadership could not reach a settlement.

When that process derailed, the governor stepped in. He brought the parties together and began looking for agreement. No one else could have rekindled the discussions.

His office handled the revived negotiations with skill and imagination. And Ducey came up with a funding source, a temporary increased payout from the state land trust, to bridge the gap between Republican legislative leaders and education organizations about how much risk to take with the state’s general fund.

The result was a plan to pump $3.5 billion into the K-12 system over the next decade, while creating triggers that give the Legislature the ability to suspend or reduce inflation-based spending increases during serious economic downturns.

If voters approve it in May, the plan would raise the caps on the state’s Permanent Land Endowment Trust Fund from today’s 2.5 percent to 6.9 percent.

Also, the Legislature has committed to spend $625 million over the next decade from the general fund, plus funding inflation on the base level every year by up to 2 percent.

Already business and education leaders are lining up to support Proposition 123 on the May 17 ballot to make this plan work. At the moment, it is the only politically feasible plan to inject large dollars into the school system.

Ducey’s role in the education-funding settlement was an unalloyed positive. He was the indispensable man. Critics continue to carp that the settlement will not raise Arizona’s ranking in per-pupil spending or solve many of the larger problems in the public schools, but it is significant money that will more likely than not be flowing soon to the K-12 system.

The work on public schools is not done. The settlement still does not restore education funding to where it once was in this state. But it is an exceptional start and gives Ducey the opportunity to be what many leaders before him have only aspired to be — the education governor.

If Ducey understands that 2015 was only the beginning and not the end, he can build a powerful legacy in the years to come and help deliver this state from its lost decade.

Important priorities remain underfunded, but Gov. Doug Ducey worked with legislative leadership to put Arizona on more stable footing.

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