With one week to go before the end of the fiscal year, the Arizona legislature managed to reconcile enough differences to pass a finalized version of the budget. However, Republican legislators opposed to the historic $18 billion budget have reported that the controlling party made the budget more palatable for members across the aisle rather than those of their own party.
Although Democratic legislators initially expressed great frustration about the budget, it appears that they may have feigned their opposition — the overwhelming majority of Democrats voted for the budget.
State Representative Jacqueline Parker (R-Mesa) was one of the legislators that voted against the budget. In a Thursday interview with “Conservative Circus,” Parker talked openly about the backdoor proceedings that went on over the last week, claiming that GOP leadership and Governor Doug Ducey gave Democrats what they wanted at the cost of Arizonans’ best interests.
All throughout Thursday’s voting, Parker offered updates on floor proceedings. She noted the shared levity between the Republicans and Democrats as the total expenditures added up with each bill passed.
Parker also noted that the budget received near-unanimous support from Democrats — unique, since Democrats normally have opposed past Republican-majority budgets.
Contrary to assurances from House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Regina Cobb (R-Kingman) that the budget would enable the state to “weather the storm” of a future recession, Parker said that the budget provisions would bankrupt the state in a recession.
“Spending is colossal, there are no massive tax cuts, and it’s exceeding our actual fiscal revenues. We’re looking at, probably, future bankruptcy as a recession comes forward,” said Parker.
Parker said that several others brought these concerns to Republican leadership prior to floor votes, but that they were ignored. The representative reported that the leaders were more interested in pleasing Democrats than with working out a conservative budget.
“Leadership essentially just said, ‘It’s easier to just go buy Democrats,’” recounted Parker. “They bought them to the tune of six billion more dollars.”
Although school choice advocates touted the universal expansion of the state’s Empowerment Account Scholarship (ESA) Program, Parker reported that Governor Doug Ducey subverted those efforts. Parker said that she and other unnamed legislators received a 2 am call warning that the ESA expansion came with a “poison pill” from the Ninth Floor.
“Ducey has made an agreement with the Democrats that if they don’t refer the ESA bill to the ballot or challenge it in court within the 90 day period, they’re going to extend the aggregate expenditure limit forever, indefinitely,” said Parker.
Parker warned that this secret deal would lead to education expenditures that would break past the 50 percent limit and possibly take over the entire budget.
One of the contentious aspects of the budget was the expansion of homeless shelters throughout Arizona suburbs. State Representative Joseph Chaplik (R-Scottsdale), another one of the lone Republicans who opposed the budget alongside Parker, lamented that the budget policies would turn the state into another California.
Another was the tax credits to entice the film industry to come to the state. The last similar tax credit program bled the state of millions of dollars leading up to the 2008 recession.
On Wednesday, the Arizona Senate Appropriations Committee passed budget legislation to offer tax credits to movie studios, after a previous effort on the matter failed. Legislators resurrected this effort by introducing it through a strike-everything amendment on HB2156 — its similar predecessor, SB1708, passed through the Senate but failed to make it to the House floor earlier this year. Analysis of the predecessor bill estimated that it would incur losses to the state averaging $150 million.
The legislation would establish a program to promote workforce development and expansion of the movie industry. Further, movie companies would receive credits up to 15 percent if they spend up to $10 million in production costs, 17.5 percent if they spend over $10 million up to $35 million, and 20 percent if they spend over $35 million.
According to the Nashville Film Institute (NFI), the average cost of making a feature film ranges between $100 and $150 million, though it noted that some comedy and animated feature films like those from DreamWorks average between $70 and $90 million.
AZ Free News reviewed the production costs for mainstream feature films in theaters currently; all are well over $35 million. The blockbuster hit “Top Gun: Maverick” had a production budget of $170 million (as of this report, the film has grossed over $900 million worldwide in under a month). Pixar’s latest animated film, “Lightyear,” cost about $200 million to produce. The biopic, “Elvis,” had a significantly lower cost at $85 million.
The legislation would also limit tax credits exceeding $150 million in any calendar year from being preapproved.
Nick Simonetta, a lobbyist, testified to the committee that leadership in both chambers wanted to move this bill at this time. Simonetta said that this version of the bill, HB2156, was an improvement on a predecessor tax credit bill passed by the committee in February, calling the updated bill the “Cadillac” of accountability.
“You cannot claim a credit in this state for the benefit of the program without paying taxes on the expenditures that you’re making,” said Simonetta.
Simonetta testified that HB2156 was ultimately an infrastructure bill that would create a nonexistent industry in Arizona. He referenced two different movie filming complexes being built in the Scottsdale and Buckeye areas.
“The folks investing in these facilities to build movie sound stage complexes and all the things that go with them — the buildings, the office space, the commissary, the mill space, the back lots, everything — this will be investments of hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars, even just for the first phases of these complexes,” said Simonetta.
State Senator Sonny Borrelli (R-Lake Havasu City) joked that he was only voting for the bill with the contingency that State Senator David Livingston (R-Peoria) didn’t get a movie role.
State Senator Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) flipped her vote this time around, having voted against the legislation’s predecessor previously. Townsend didn’t offer an in-depth explanation on her change of heart. She joked that Simonetta’s “little extra explanation” past the cut-off time for his testimony was enough to change her mind.
The Arizona Free Enterprise Club criticized the tax credit bill, arguing that it would cost Arizonans hundreds of millions in taxpayer dollars to subsidize Hollywood liberals.
Arizona Republican Party Political Director Jeremiah Cota commented that the tax credits only sweetened the deal for Democrats, and played into “woke” agendas contrary to Arizonan interests.
The state’s previous tax credit program for movie companies that began in 2005 bled the state of millions of dollars. At the time, Canada introduced tax incentives that pulled movie companies away from Arizona and all other states. Incentives like Arizona’s tax credit program were launched in response to Canada as a means of enticing movie companies to return to the states.
Arizona’s tax credit program lapsed officially in 2010, though it was shut down by the 2008 recession.
The Arizona House approved a universal expansion of the state’s school choice program on Wednesday afternoon. It now heads to the Senate for review.
The legislation, HB2853 by State Representative Ben Toma (R-Peoria), prompted protracted arguments that delayed the vote for about an hour. House Republicans managed to overcome Tuesday’s budget disputes to rally the majority to pass the bill, 31-26 along party lines. Anti-school choice activists in the gallery shouted “Shame!” repeatedly as the vote totals were read, adding to their general disruption and commentary presented throughout the hour-long debate on HB2853.
Democrats asserted that public schools weren’t fully funded, insinuating that was why they fell short in the eyes of Republicans and what they claimed was a minority of Arizona parents. They insisted that universal school choice through the state’s Empowerment Scholarship Account (ESA) Program contradicted the will of a majority of Arizona voters.
Republicans argued that school choice should be the option for all students, regardless of income or zip code. They repeated the idea that parents were the ultimate accountability for student success and outcomes, not government.
As the final vote and argument presented, Toma argued that Democrats’ logic meant that voters couldn’t ever possibly change their mind on the subject of school choice, which he insisted wasn’t true. Toma insisted that dollars should follow the students and not be the ownership of individual systems.
Toma wondered why private schools should be the exclusive domain of the wealthy, citing back to committee testimony from Drew Anderson — a South Phoenix pastor, Democrat, and beneficiary of school choice, which lifted him out of the squalor of public schools and onto a path resulting in his becoming an NFL player and consequently enabling him to lift his entire family out of poverty.
“This is giving everyone the opportunity to make full use of all their choices,” said Toma.
AZ Free News summarized the highlights of the partisan floor arguments for and against HB2853.
Democrat Arguments Against Universal School Choice:
State Representative Kelli Butler (D-Paradise Valley) characterized the bill repeatedly as “disrespecting the will of voters,” which earned reprimanding from Speaker Pro Tempore Travis Grantham (R-Gilbert). Butler doubted that beneficiaries of the ESA Program were using their funds to “learn anything,” claiming that there wasn’t proper oversight of beneficiary schools’ curriculum.
“They could be learning the most basic things and using our tax dollars,” said Butler.
State Representative Lorenzo Sierra (D-Avondale) said that public schools provided a far superior education, pointing out that 19 out of 20 Flinn Scholars went to public schools.
Sierra also predicted there would be regulations on this bill, speculating that a group of liberals would launch a school built around the 1619 Project, and that the legislature would then attempt to regulate private schools if that happened.
State Representative Judy Schwiebert (D-Phoenix) said that a vast majority of families choose a public district for their children because of their accountability and presence of school boards, calling public school curriculum “well-rounded, publicly vetted, [and] diverse.”
Ultimately, Schwiebert insisted that not all children deserved school choice.
“Technically I know we’re giving it to parents, but let’s be real about it, we’re funneling it to private schools,” said Schwiebert.
State Representative Mitzi Epstein (D-Chandler) said that school choice expansion at this scale would greatly increase cost of administration, and called parents’ access to taxpayer dollars to individualize their children’s education “inefficient.”
State Representative Andrés Cano (D-Tucson) asked his Republican colleagues to submit personal financial disclosures about their benefit to school choice.
State Representative Sarah Liguori complained that the ESA Program was corrupted because some of her wealthier “mom friends” used program funds toward their children’s education. Ligouri said that those individuals should pay for private schooling themselves.
House Minority Leader Reginald Bolding (D-Laveen) claimed that “millionaires and billionaires” would receive a check to subsidize their child’s private schooling. He claimed that private schools wouldn’t return ESA program money even if the family couldn’t cover the rest of the tuition, and that public schools would have to “pick up the slack.”
State Representative Melody Hernandez (D-Tempe) said that expanding the ESA Program would actually trap low-income families in failing schools, many of whom she said were minorities. She called the bill “immoral,” and claimed that Republicans were targeting people like her by expanding a system of oppression.
Republican Arguments For Universal School Choice:
State Representative Lupe Diaz (R-Hereford) insisted that Democrats’ arguments about the harm of school choice couldn’t be true based on the longevity and successes of school choice in Arizona’s history.
“If this program causes so much heartache and blows up public schools, then it wouldn’t have the longevity it has now,” asserted Diaz.
State Representative Shawnna Bolick (R-Phoenix) said she would’ve loved to have school choice options like this growing up, and asserted that it was a good thing that children could use ESA dollars for college education as well.
“Why should we wait until higher education to allow taxpayers to utilize these public dollars for their [children’s] education?” said Bolick.
State Representative John Fillmore (R-Apache Junction) reminded the floor that K-12 spending eats up almost half of general fund money, yet Democrats argued it wasn’t enough. Fillmore also read Arizona Department of Education (ADE) data revealing the low passage rates for children in standardized testing.
“The fact of the matter is, the schools have failed us. Parents are taking their kids out because they see this failure,” said Fillmore.
State Representative Joanne Osborne (R-Goodyear) said that every generation of her family dating back to the late 1890s graduated from Arizona’s public school systems, and that her daughter is a current public school teacher, but that those factors didn’t outweigh her care for children’s needs.
Osborne characterized HB2853 as a win for all Arizona schoolchildren, and asserted that a majority of Arizona parents want school choice. Her remark prompted commentary from the gallery.
Less than 24 hours after the Joint Legislative Budget Committee published the proposed budget report late Monday, infighting broke out among Arizona’s House and Senate Republicans.
Tuesday marked lengthy budget discussions in the House Appropriations Committee, but in the Senate discussions were cut off abruptly with an indefinite recess of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Effectively, public budget talks ended before they started in half of the State Capitol.
State Senator David Gowan (R-Sierra Vista) said that the House didn’t honor its agreements to pass some bills; one of those significant ones being the Arizona Board of Regents (ABOR) continuation.
“The House has decided that they will not honor the deals we created together and move things forward. I know there’s some media out there, social stuff going on, that they’re trying to pin us and maybe leverage us. But the point is here, they blew the deal,” said Gowan.
Gowan added that he wasn’t willing to call the committee together later on in the day, either. It appears that House legislators reneged on some serious closed-door talks — enough to upset him.
“It would be pretty hard for me to want to come back and help people who wish not to honor deals. In that effort, it’s just not appropriate in what just occurred, so I want that out to the world,” said Gowan.
However, State Representative Travis Grantham (R-Gilbert) contended that he’d never heard of these deals as the House Rules Committee Chairman. He criticized Gowan’s preferences as “special interest” legislation that was “fat, bloated, […] unconstitutional,” and adverse to Republican interests. Gowan didn’t reply.
“I have never discussed a deal, agreed to a deal or been part of some secretive deal to move certain Senator’s special interest bills that are fat, bloated and in some instances likely unconstitutional,” wrote Grantham. “And further, why would we invite and pay an industry, with taxpayer dollars to come into our great state when they will ban, boycott and take away major meetings, corporations and events because of our Republican majorities and sound policies? #BadIdea”
Those weren’t the only serious breaks from presenting a unified Republican front on the budget. Several individual Republican legislators vocalized dissatisfaction with the budget emphatically on social media and during committee votes.
As the majority, the GOP will have to resolve those opposed within its membership if it hopes to secure the budget’s passage before the new fiscal year begins next Friday, July 1.
Among those opposed to the budget are State Senator Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R-Scottsdale). She asserted that the budget wasn’t fiscally responsible in the face of a looming recession. Ugenti-Rita scorned provisions of the bill as “pet projects” for fellow members.
That contradicted how State Representative Regina Cobb (R-Kingman) characterized the budget during the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday. Cobb said that the proposed budget bills would afford the state with an 8 to 10 percent cushion — enough to “weather the storm” of a pending recession, asserting repeatedly that paying off the pension debt and rollovers would remove troublesome burdens in coming years.
“Are we going to flatline tomorrow or July 1? Absolutely not, but we’ve projected it to be fiscally conservative,” said Cobb. “I think if we’re going into a recession, we’re paying off a lot of debt that could be hanging over our heads during a recession.”
State Representative Jake Hoffman (R-Queen Creek) also opposed the budget. He declared that the budget would only worsen an impending sustained recession and current, serious economic destruction. Hoffman criticized the raises to state employees and judges of up to 15 percent. Although Hoffman was the only Republican committee member to vote against the bill, the legislator said that the budget doesn’t reflect the majority’s platform.
“Everything in [our constituents’] lives are going up, and they’re not getting raises right now. If they are, they’re under the inflation rate,” said Hoffman.
Arizona Free Enterprise Club, a free market policy and advocacy organization, asserted that extraneous funding for agendas contrary to the interests of Arizonans were sprinkled into the budget. In a statement to AZ Free News, President Scot Mussi declared that the budget largely fulfilled Democrats’ wishlist.
“The proposed budget deal includes hundreds of millions in new spending, subsidies for Hollywood liberals to make movies, tax hikes for a Green New Deal transit plan in Maricopa County and special interest pork to buy Democrat votes,” said Mussi. “We should be working toward a budget that has full Republican support, not a Build Back Broke budget supported by Democrats.”
By and large, Democrats focused their comments Tuesday on lamenting the budget’s K-12 spending. Some accused the budget’s design as a “shell game.” Several noted that they didn’t like the idea of funding more border security.
One of the most vocal opponents of the budget, State Representative Kelli Butler (D-Paradise Valley), called the ongoing revenue calculations “irresponsible” during committee. Butler also said that she and a majority of Arizona voters wanted $1 billion for K-12 education. Butler accused the budget of shell games related to taxation that made education funding more vulnerable.
Despite the ongoing economic turmoil and near-universal expectation of a recession, Butler asserted that the economy was “thriving.” Butler also took issue with the fact that she was still getting briefings by midnight and memos from staff at one am early Tuesday, arguing that no legislators had time to figure out what’s all in the budget.
Present at the State Capitol were educator activists with the Arizona Education Association (AEA) rallying for more teacher pay using the $5.3 billion surplus.
Those for the budget praised it for getting more things right to address the state’s current needs. One Democrat, State Representative Cesár Chávez (D-Maryvale) signaled support for the budget, pointing out during committee that the legislature had a little over a week before its deadline for the budget hits. He concurred with his Democratic peers that K-12 education needed a “true, historic investment,” but that he had a responsibility to make the budget work ahead of the deadline.
State Representative Michelle Udall (R-Mesa) offered a list of positives within the budget solving statewide problems: over $1 billion to solve water supply problems; over $1.6 billion overall increase in K12 spending, which meted out to $750 per pupil or a $23,000 increase per classroom; over $1 billion in debt payoff in unfunded liabilities and pensions; over $1 billion increase in public safety (police, fires, courts); and over $500 million to increase health care like in diabetes management training and postpartum care.
As national attention focuses on children’s exposure to Pride Month festivities, Arizona’s Republican lawmakers pledged on Tuesday to craft legislation outlawing minor attendance at drag shows.
In a joint statement, the Senate Majority team condemned the sexualization and grooming of children through drag shows:
“One of the reasons why we were elected as lawmakers by our constituents was to protect family values. If men want to dress as women, and if adults want to participate in watching these hyper-sexualized performances, they have the freedom to do so. It crosses the line when kids are subjected to these drag shows. This ignorance by public and private sectors promoting this behavior sends a message of complete and utter perversion that can have detrimental impacts on the social and emotional development of our children. We will be damned if we won’t fight like hell to protect the most innocent from these horrifying and disturbing trends that are spreading across the nation now that extremist Democrats are currently in control of our federal government.”
The Senate Majority press release noted that they were working alongside several other, unnamed states to craft the legislation. The press release lamented that children were being exposed to sexual perversion.
Arizona has had its share of LGBTQ+-related pedophilia incidents. Just last month, a Tucson Magnet High School counselor who organized a drag show for high schoolers was arrested for having a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old student. The Senate Majority team called out this incident, arguing that nondiscrimination policies were a slippery slope that had led to total disregard for morals and values.
“Policies of ‘nondiscrimination regarding gender expression and sexual orientation’ are sending a message to society that we should disregard morals and values just to normalize these unscientific, broad, ill-defined and subjective terms, which set a dangerous precedent for our children that are too young to be exposed to such concepts,” wrote the team.
Earlier this month, children were bore witness to the Heard Museum in Phoenix’s first-ever drag show. That incident was also acknowledged by the Senate Majority team.
“Performers were seen dressed in scantily clad attire while carrying out provocative dance moves that left little to the imagination as youngsters watched,” asserted the team.
In apparent response to the Senate Majority pledge to outlaw drag shows for minors, State Representative Andrés Cano (D-Tucson) suggested that the state legislature hold a drag show. He has not acknowledged the arrest of the high school counselor in his district.
State Representative Jennifer Longdon (D-Phoenix) claimed that gun shows were more harmful to children than drag shows.
“As others have said, gun shows are far more harmful for your kids than drag shows,” wrote Longdon. “Also, I LOVE drag queen story time!!!”
Research has linked early exposure to sexually explicit material with risky sexual behaviors, intimacy disorders, sexual violence and misconduct, and sexual deviancy. Most research on firearm exposure focuses on the effects and likelihood of gun violence, and not witnessing the legal use of a firearm.