Democratic Legislative Leaders

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Senate minority leader Katie Hobbs and House minority leader Eric Meyer will talk about priorities of Democrats in the legislative session.

Ted Simons: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," we'll hear from state Democratic leaders on their priorities for the legislative session. And we'll check out a film that focuses on the owner of an iconic Phoenix restaurant. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."

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Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. The state's jobless rate ticked down a bit last month, dropping .2 of a percent to 5.8%. The Arizona department of administration reports that there was a gain of 7,400 non-farm jobs in December and that last year as a whole, the state added over 65,000 jobs, the best annual job growth since the great recession. The state's annual job growth rate last year was 2.5%. That's .6 of a percent better than the national average. But Arizona's unemployment rate of 5.8% is still higher than the national rate of 5%.
And Secretary of State Michele Reagan wants to eliminate state funding for Arizona's presidential primary. Reagan is planning to promote legislation that would make the state's political parties responsible for covering the costs of their own primaries. Reagan's elections director says that the main concern is the $10 million it costs the state to hold the primary. Along with the fact that independents, the largest voting bloc in the state, are shut out of the presidential primary process.
We've heard from the governor and the Arizona Senate president on their priorities for the current legislative session. We now get a chance to hear what democrats would like to see happen at the capitol this year. Joining us now, Senate minority leader Katie Hobbs, and house minority leader Eric Meyer. Good to see you both here. Thank you for joining us.

Katie Hobbs: Good to be here.

Ted Simons: What are you pushing for this go round?

Katie Hobbs: We unveiled our priorities. Morning session, five key areas, K-12, university at the top, and reinvesting in those areas to make us more competitive and to put our students in a better position, and honestly to help our economy, also economic development is another one of those priority areas.

Ted Simons: We will get to more specifics in a second. What are you pushing?

Eric Meyer: The same things, investing in our future, our kids, universities, schools, job creation. We have talked to our constituents and hear loud and clear quite frankly, it doesn't matter what political party, they want to see us reinvest in our schools, keep college tuition affordable, and when our kids graduate from college, they want jobs for those kids and jobs for themselves.

Ted Simons: Reinvesting in schools. Senate president says right now, K-12 spending is in general, I believe he described it as a morass. It has to be simplified, streamlined, does he have a point?

Katie Hobbs: We have eliminated several different funding formulas and consolidated them. We have one baseline per pupil number.

Eric Meyer: It is streamlined because we are not funding it. Most formulas are not funded. I think that is an excuse. I think what we should be doing is using some of the surplus we have to reinvest in our schools.

Ted Simons: But would it not make sense then to go ahead and streamline it, find a way to simplify it and then hope for a better chance of getting more investment?

Eric Meyer: We have been talking about that since I started down there. It depends what that means. And if that means creating a system that doesn't appropriately fund our schools, that takes away some of the things, local residents use like bonds and overrides, I think there is a risk in doing that because that gives the local residents the ability to help fund their schools or build their schools.

Ted Simons: Talk about education funding prop 123. Will you support passage of 123?

Katie Hobbs: Yes.

Ted Simons: Because?

Katie Hobbs: Well, I think it is clear from the governor's budget that there is not going to be other money for schools and right now our schools and -- our teachers and students are depending on this money to get into the classroom. They struggled for a long time with, you know, not being invested in by the legislature. This is really the only -- deal they are going to get and it needs to pass.

Ted Simons: Will you support 123?

Eric Meyer: I served on a school board when we made the cuts, multiple cuts, including the inflation funding cuts and our schools are desperate. Class sizes are incredibly large. We have a terrible teacher shortage and one of the priorities is to address that problem. Teacher retention and teacher mentoring programs and one of our suggestions is to invest in programs that do those types of things. Our schools are desperate. Class sizes are too large and it is all that we have been given at that point. Hopefully it is just a first step though.

Ted Simons: I was going to ask about that. Prop 123, as far as other education spending, is it all on hold, a wait and see until that May vote for this proposition?

Eric Meyer: Well, it doesn't have to be, but it appears that is the governor's plan. You know, we have cut our career and technical education funding. We changed the way we fund our schools. That's $70 million in cuts. It doesn't have to be. We have additional funds. We have $218 million in ongoing revenues. Another $555 million in one-time revenues. So, there is dollars there. We are not going to spend like crazy. That isn't going to put the budget out of balance, but when we cut billions and have a chance to restore it, now is the time to do that.

Ted Simons: CTEs -- career and technical education. JTeds, technical education joint districts, lost 30 some odd million last year. This year the governor says okay we got $30 million back but we will put it in three-year installments, $10 million each and each district has to figure out what business wants. You have to team up with a business to get these grants.

Katie Hobbs: Right.

Ted Simons: Good idea?

Katie Hobbs: Well, this is absolutely not a fix to the problem. If we don't fix the $30 million cut right now, a lot of the programs are just going to cease to exist. They will lose their highly qualified and highly specialized teachers. They have to do contracts now. And the $10 million a year doesn't fill the gap of the $30 million cut.

Ted Simons: With that being said, idea of tying that grant, tying that money to a business that needs these particular workers. That particular kind of education. Does that make sense?

Katie Hobbs: Well, we have seen businesses come out already saying this is not the way to fix this problem. This is not what we need in terms of filling our -- filling, you know, having a qualified work force. The way that the program is working right now is working. I don't know why we're -- why we're changing it.

Ted Simons: Supporters would say that it is kind of a way of getting accountability, making sure that what is being taught is what should be taught.

Eric Meyer: Well, couple of things. Governor came out and said he wanted to reduce red tape and this increases red tape. I mean, he went and, you know, said one thing and does another. Secondly, 98 or thereabouts percent of the kids in these programs graduate and when I was on the board in Scottsdale, we had things in biotech, technology, nursing programs. They're all things that we need in our jobs -- kids leave, they get jobs in our economy right now, and just like Senator Hobbs said, if it isn't broken, why are we trying to fix it? We should be funding this program. It is incredibly successful. I don't know why the governor is proposing the increased red tape.

Ted Simons: Senator Biggs, he sees transform necessary, transparency needed, state audits needed, state audits -- he says there hasn't been a state audit since 2004 of JTed, is that true?

Eric Meyer: I believe it is true. Educational audits, school district, that audit occurs -- I'm fine with doing an audit. If we do an audit we have to use it. We did an audit with DCF that told us how to change it and make it better and it has been ignored. If we want to improve the effectiveness of the programs fine. We shouldn't throw it out for a program that the governor is creating that cuts two-thirds of all of the funding and will essentially destroy the programs across the state.

Ted Simons: As far as university funding is concerned, $99 million cut last go around, I think the governor is up to $8 million -- a different formula there, $8 million for the next fiscal year. Your thoughts on that, and if more funding for universities is needed, where does it come from?

Katie Hobbs: I think the $8 million is an example of the governor saying that he supports something and then not really putting the dollars there to back that up. The $8 million translates to about $88 a student. So, not really going to help with increases in tuition. And we, our plan shows where we -- we have the surplus. We should be investing that in our universities. So, I think that the $8 million is sort of insulting actually.

Ted Simons: I know the Senate president, again, we had him here the other night, he said that the cuts deal with about less than one percent of total revenue for the Arizona universities and his quote was that the universities are upset over nothing. Does he have a point?

Katie Hobbs: You know, I don't think so. I think we -- we saw as soon as the cuts were made, tuition increases were approved and that makes college less affordable and less accessible to students. That is what we should be looking at. This $8 million isn't going to help with that accessibility at all.

Ted Simons: Upset over nothing.

Eric Meyer: Well, I watched and saw what he -- he is pooling all of the moneys the universities get for grants, for all of these other things that you cannot spend just like a school district level. You get title one money, pool that money and say hey, they're getting all of this money. We have to spend those on specific earmarked programs. When you look at what has happened with college tuition and support of our colleges in this state, we have made the largest cuts of any state in the country, per capita basis, 50th of 50th, 50 states. And, you know, our college tuition under the Constitution should be as near as free as possible. We have gotten a long way from there. We need to reverse the trend so that our kids can afford to go to school.

Ted Simons: The budget and you mentioned earlier, reference of -- we're talking anywhere from 600, some 400 some odd in the rainy day -- up to a billion -- who knows what the numbers are, but the money seems to be out there, although, again, Republicans are saying a structural deficit is much closer and much more challenging. Do they have a point there? I mean, we keep hearing about being flush with cash. Are we really flush with cash?

Eric Meyer: Well, those dollars are estimates from the joint legislative budget committee and from the governor's office. No one can predict the future. We don't have a crystal ball. You just pointed out the economic numbers at the beginning of the show. Economy continues to improve. We would expect the conservative estimates they have used on revenue growth to hold true. You know, that's why we have that rainy day fund. That is why a half billion sitting there. We can use some of the other dollars if we make sensible decisions and investing in the programs. The governor was able to find four times as much money for private prisons. Been able to find $31 million for a strike force on the border. But he can't find money for our schools. So, it is about setting your priorities. We have apparently different priorities than the governor and the Republican leadership in that we believe we should invest in our kids, our schools, and their futures.

Ted Simons: The governor would say he did find money for the schools by way of the state land trust.

Eric Meyer: Well, he hasn't yet. The voters have to approve it. Again, those dollars move us from 49th in per pupil funding to 49th in per pupil funding. So, it is a start but it can't be the end.

Ted Simons: Back to how this stuff gets paid for, all of those programs and things. Can it be argued that it does feel a little like 2008, that it does feel a little like 2013 when there was cash and things were spent, you know, things happened, and then all of the sudden we turn around with the recession and we have a big deficit going.

Katie Hobbs: Again, like Dr. Meyer said, no one can predict the future perfectly. We have good estimates about how much of the revenue is ongoing. And we have, in our plan, we have tried to invest really responsibly with, you know, one-time funding where we know there is one-time funding and ongoing, we think there is ongoing. We can't predict that another recession is going to happen or, you know, but we -- we think that the ways that we want to invest the dollars will grow the economy and help with, you know, the future revenues.

Ted Simons: And, again, the other side would say, Arizona has to be good for business in order to be good for Arizona. And Forbes has us as a top state for growth, tax structure, regulatory environment, the Senate president says those are all attractions. The education environment in Arizona, he says is an attraction to others. Is he right?

Katie Hobbs: Well, I think that the regulatory and tax structure are certainly important in attracting business, but looking at infrastructure, looking at quality of education, both for ensuring that they have a qualified work force but also that their employees have good schools to send their children to. So, those are as important as or more important than the tax environment.

Ted Simons: Again, in general, the idea that there is only so much money to go around. You are not going to see a tax increase unless it goes to the voter. Can't get two-thirds of the vote in the legislature, ain't going to happen. With that in play, how much can you realistically get as far as priorities, as far as what you want to see invested?

Eric Meyer: Well, you know, we never know what we're going to get. But we're down there fighting for what we believe our constituents want. Like I said earlier, they want quality schools, affordable college tuition. We never know how it is going to play out. Three years ago, Medicaid expansion passed. That was a big priority for all Arizonans, for the chamber, and that was a bipartisan coalition. We continue to be open to working with the governor, and Republican leadership to make change in the state. We offer up to meet with them any time they want to try and do the right thing.

Ted Simons: You offer up for the meetings. How many meetings do you get? How much influence do Democrats really have at the capitol and for those who say it is not much, you say --

Katie Hobbs: Well, I think that there is certain things that the governor listens to us on and there is certain things that -- some things that are bipartisan that are going on right now. I think another big issue for us is transparency. And we talked about this last year with the budget process. One of the things we did yesterday was try to move a rule change to change the budget process so there was more subcommittee hearings and open up that transparency. I think that maybe, you know, that it didn't pass and that shows you where the Republicans' priorities are. They like it just the way it is. We have the opportunity to bring attention to that process and hopefully inform voters that this is what is really going on at the Capitol.

Ted Simons: About 30 seconds left. When people say what are you even doing down there? You have no influence, no say, how do you respond?

Eric Meyer: I feel like we do have a lot of influence. We get to vote on bills. We get to use the bully pulpit to talk about what is right for Arizona, and our constituents, my constituents reach out to me on a daily basis and say thanks, keep fighting the fight. You're making Arizona a better place. So, I'm happy to serve and I'm getting cut off --

Ted Simons: Trying not to cut you off but that is all of the time we have. Good to have you both here.

Katie Hobbs: Thank you.

Eric Meyer:House minority leader,Katie Hobbs:Senate minority leader

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