Arizona governor to close prison, calls for veteran tax cut
The Associated Press
PHOENIX (AP) — Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey on Monday said he is renaming the state Department of Corrections to highlight a new focus on rehabilitation and closing the oldest state prison in a move that will save nearly $275 million over three years.
The Republican governor highlighted the moves in his State of the State address before a joint session of the state House and Senate.
The prison system will now be called the Department of Corrections, Rehabilitation and Reentry and corrections officers will get another raise, following up on a 10 percent increase they got last year, if lawmakers agree.
Closing the Florence prison, which is more than 100 years old and houses about 3,800 male inmates, will also help boost staffing at nine other male state prisons, notably the nearby Eyman prison. Corrections has about a 20 percent corrections officer vacancy rate systemwide. The prisoners in Florence would be sent to other facilities, including some to private prisons that contract with the state, and low-level offenders could be sent to county jails.
Ducey said focusing on rehabilitation and re-entry programs will pay off, noting that 3,900 inmates have completed second chance programs and more than 2,400 had jobs on their release.
"We know these programs work," Ducey said. "This year we are doubling down on this successful model, to give more individuals their opportunity at a better choice and a better life."
The governor didn't mention sentencing reform, but some Republican lawmakers and all Democrats are pushing a revamp in state law to cut sentences for non-violent offenders.
The governor also said he plans to boost funding for K-12 schools, including more money to fund school counselors and campus police officers. Last year, the budget provided $20 million in new counselor and officer cash, but schools applied for more than $90 million in funding.
Career and technical education will get a boost, and the governor said he will restore all $371 million in cash that districts use for books, curriculum, buses and some large capital outlays that was cut after the Great Recession two years ahead of schedule. That 5-year plan was announced in 2018.
"In total, we've pumped $4.5 billion in new investments into Arizona schools," Ducey said. "With our latest budget, that figure will rise to $6.6 billion. And we've done all that without raising taxes."
The governor also touted infrastructure projects he wants to fund, including $78 million for a new Interstate 10 bridge over the Gila River along the highway between Tucson and Phoenix. The widened bridge will help accelerate the complete widening of the route to three lanes.
The governor spent a good deal of his speech touting Arizona's economy, its growing population and his push to cut regulations and government in general.
"In Arizona, we believe in maximizing freedom and limiting government," he said. "We believe government should do fewer things, but do the things it does well."
"Let's continue hacking away at the permanent bureaucracy and the 'mother may I' state."
As part of that push, he announced a new executive order that any new regulation must repeal three others, and he wiped out 18 boards and commissions he considered unneeded. He also vowed to sign legislation requiring boards that oversee professions to have a majority of public members instead of insiders. Any licensing board that has a major budget surplus would be required to suspend its fees.
Veterans would benefit too: The governor wants to exempt military pensions from the state's income tax, a move that would cost $45 million but save an average military retiree about $900 a year.
"Our vets have already earned their benefits. Put their lives on the line," Ducey said. "The government shouldn't be taxing their service to the country."
Ducey pledged to oppose any tax increases, drawing rousing applause in the Republican-led Legislature hours after education interests proposed an income-tax hike for people making more than $250,000.
The governor called on insurance companies to improve coverage for mental health as the state faces a growing number of suicides among young people. Today's children face a variety of pressures foreign to adults, including social media, loneliness and vaping, he said.
"Insurance companies should be covering mental health just like they cover an annual physical," Ducey said.
Arizona has seen a 50 percent increase in suicides by people younger than 18 in the past two years, according to the Arizona Public Health Association.
The governor said he's on the verge of finishing negotiations with Arizona's Native American tribes on "a modern, updated agreement" governing tribal gaming, but he did not offer specifics.
He called for lawmakers to approve a 2020 ballot measure asking voters to amend the state constitution to ban "sanctuary cities," which restrict cooperation between local law enforcement and federal immigration authorities. Tucson voters in November rejected a sanctuary city initiative that would have further restricted the city's already limited cooperation on immigration enforcement.
Democrats said they liked some things in the speech while others left a sour taste.
"I think that was the most Republican State of the State he's given in a few years," said Rep. Randall Friese, assistant minority leader. "He started out by bashing taxes and coming down on Tucson.
"Certainly there were good things," Friese added, including restoring school funding, raises for child safety workers, and access to mental health care.
"So we might have a budget where we'll have some overlap and actually have some coalition building," he said. "I'm hopeful."
Associated Press writer Jonathan J. Cooper contributed to this report.