Ducey Calls Special Session To Address Wildfire Funding As State Budget Remains In Doubt

Arizona is facing a fire emergency with two massive wildfires burning at once. [Photo courtesy Arizona Department of Forestry & F ire Management]

By Terri Jo Neff

Gov. Doug Ducey was expected to call a special session any day now to address the legislative stalemate of 11 budget bills which have been the subject of some opposition even among the Republican majority. So his announcement Thursday of a special session related solely to funding for natural disasters caught many lawmakers off guard.

“I am calling a special session to make sure we have the resources needed to contain current wildfires, possible flooding, and any other natural disasters that arise from this emergency,” Ducey said in his announcement. He did not include a start date for the special session but legislators have been told it will take place next week.

News of the special session unrelated to an overall budget package came as Ducey and key Republican legislators representing communities burning under the Telegraph and the Mescal fires toured the damage. It also came one day after the governor said he would be agreeable to working with the Democrat caucus to resolve the budget stalemate that threatens Ducey’s last chance transition Arizona to a flat rate income tax.

Democrats, however, have been outspoken against the current wording of the flat tax portion of the budget package, although some have left the door open for passing the majority of the spending bills, as well as a tax cut funded by Arizona’s more than $1 billion surplus.

It is more likely, however, that Ducey and legislative leaders will need to amend the 11 bills in order to get the necessary 31 votes in the House and 16 votes in the Senate. If that cannot be done in the next week or so, the governor can call another special session dealing exclusively with the budget. Or lawmakers could end up approving with a bare-bones “skinny” budget to avert a state government shutdown on July 1.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita tweeted Thursday she supports Ducey’s special session to deal with the wildfires. But she could not resist a poke at the governor for his response this year compared to last year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Ugenti-Rita, Ducey’s “leadership solution” last year was “to shutdown the economy, support the legislature prematurely ending session, issuing 50+ executive orders and steadfastly refusing to convene a special session” which she and other lawmakers requested.

“Now, under the guise of another emergency, you want to wait until next week to call the legislature into special session. I find your call for a special session in this scenario incongruent with your past decisions,” she tweeted, pointing out the legislature was in session on Thursday “ready and available to help” but both chambers adjourned until next Monday because key lawmakers were with Ducey touring fire damaged communities.

A vocal critic of this year’s budget package is Sen. Paul Boyer, who has called for one-time tax cuts for one-time revenues. “Rebate taxpayer’s money now,” he tweeted earlier in the week. “That is conservative.”

Some lawmakers in the Republican majority like Boyer object to the amount of the surplus which would get returned to taxpayers as tax cuts under the current budget bills. They point to the fact the cuts would likely also result in less shared revenue to Arizona’s cities and towns, while not focusing enough on the state’s debt, including serious under-funding issues with the Arizona Public Safety Personnel Retirement System.

The Joint Legislative Budget Committee and staff from Ducey’s office are expected to continue working on a proposed compromise over the next few days.