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Ducey says he won't fund "empty seats" in schools, but aide clarifies he still supports online options
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Ducey says he won't fund "empty seats" in schools, but aide clarifies he still supports online options

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On a darkened and nearly empty Arizona House of Representatives floor, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey delivers a remote State of the State address during the opening of the Arizona Legislature at the state Capitol in Phoenix.

PHOENIX — Gov. Doug Ducey said Monday he will not fund “empty seats” in classrooms or allow schools to remain in “a perpetual state of closure.”

“Students have been kept out of classrooms for long enough,” the Republican governor said in his seventh State of the State speech. “They’ve lost out on childhood experiences that can’t be duplicated on a computer screen.”

Ducey said parents and teachers have done the best they can with remote and online learning.

“But it’s time to get our students back where they belong,” he said. “Every public health professional, from Dr. Fauci and the CDC on down, (is) saying that the safest place for kids to be is in schools.”

After the speech, however, the governor’s press aide insisted Ducey’s statements were not a threat to cut off state dollars for schools that operate entirely online or with hybrid programs.

“Gov. Ducey supports virtual options for those parents who want them,” said press aide C.J. Karamargin. “He is not considering cutting funding for virtual students.”

Not funding “empty seats” simply means that, beginning next school year, if a parent chooses a different option for a child, the state aid will follow that child to a new public school, whether a district school or charter school, Karamargin said.

He emphasized that Ducey’s preference remains to have kids in seats. “With the vaccine now here, teachers are being vaccinated with high priority,” Karamargin said. “Any student who wants to be in a classroom should have that opportunity.”

Calls for more school time to help kids catch up

The governor also made it clear that he doesn’t believe virtual learning produces the same results as being in a classroom with a teacher at the front.

“Before COVID, we had an achievement gap in our schools. And it’s only gotten worse,” Ducey said, saying there is a definite correlation between that gap and economic and racial lines.

“Distance learning has not been good for these students, who often don’t have Wi-Fi or a laptop available,” he said.

Ducey also suggested summer school, longer school days, and one-on-one targeted instruction and tutoring.

“It should be our goal that every student graduates high school on time and at grade level,” he said.

Karamargin stressed, though, that Ducey was not seeking to mandate summer school, longer school days or private tutoring.

“We’ll provide funding to schools for families that want it,” he said.

Students at UC San Diego looking for a snack from a vending machine might be in for a surprise.

Other priorities: Lowering taxes, staying the course on COVID restrictions

In the speech Ducey delivered virtually from his office due to COVID concerns, the governor also proposed lowering taxes on individuals and businesses, which he said will preserve the state’s competitive advantage.

He also proposed selling off state buildings, which he said are not necessary given the shift to remote work by employees.

But much of his emphasis was in providing a full-throated defense of what he has — and has not — done to deal with COVID-19 as the state continues to set new records.

And he had strong words for those who have suggested the virus can be curbed through new restrictions on business operations, closed schools and public gatherings.

“It’s a question that only makes sense if you forget about everything else, all the other troubles that lockdowns set in motion,” Ducey said.

“The rest of life doesn’t stop in a pandemic, least of all our basic responsibilities,” he continued. “People still have bills to pay, children in need of schooling, businesses to run and employees who depend on them.”

Departing from his prepared remarks, which were previously released, Ducey took a specific slap at mayors who have publicly urged him to do more. While he didn’t name names, that was a clear reference to the mayors of Tucson, Phoenix and Flagstaff, all Democrats, who have criticized him for lack of action.

There’s another reason Ducey is raising that point. Several lawmakers in his own party are moving to dissolve the emergency declaration the governor declared in March. In that declaration, he specifically forbade local governments from imposing any restrictions that he had not approved.

If the statewide declaration no longer exists, then local governments would again be free to use their own powers. Ducey said he will oppose any move to strip him of emergency powers.

“I’m not going to hand over the keys to a small group of mayors who have expressed every intention of locking down their cities,” he said.

Ducey’s speech came as the Arizona Department of Health Services reported a record 4,957 hospital beds were occupied by patients with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.

In intensive-care units, 1,158 COVID patients are now occupying 65% of all ICU beds in the state. That compares with the prior peak of 970 in July.

Overall, 10,147 Arizonans have died from the coronavirus, with 627,541 having been diagnosed with the disease.

Full-throated defense of his COVID actions

Ducey said lots of Arizonans do not have the option of remote work and are not getting direct deposits.

“To make a living, they have to show up somewhere,” he said. “And if the doors are closed, then at a certain point they are never going to open again.”

And then there’s what Ducey said is the other side of the issue, including increased opioid abuse, alcoholism, addiction, mental health issues, “the sheer loneliness of isolation,” and suicides.

He also said he doesn’t believe other states with stricter mandates are having any better luck in curbing the spread of the virus.

“They’re still dealing with the worst of it, just as we are,” he said.

Ducey did not address the fact that Arizona had the second-highest daily case rate in the past seven days of any state in the nation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In that period, CDC says Arizona had 122 cases per 100,000 residents. That was exceeded only by Rhode Island at 130.3.

A separate metric shows that only six states have a more rapid rate of spread than Arizona.

Ducey was unapologetic.

“I’m well aware that taking the measured, steady, responsible approach will continue to invite criticism from all directions that we’re doing too much or not enough,” the governor said. “The critics can say what they want, but the path I’ve outlined is the right path for Arizona.”

Ducey is effectively counting on the newly available vaccine to solve the problem, highlighting the new 24/7 vaccination site now available at State Farm Stadium in Glendale for those who are eligible at this point.

“Everyone needs this vaccine,” he said. “And the sooner we all receive it, the more quickly we can get on with life.”

Ducey’s decision to stay the course is likely to get a fight from fellow Republicans, who resent the restrictions that remain on things like restaurant and gym capacity, and from Democrats who say the state needs to do more to curb the virus’ spread.

“On tax reform, let’s think big”

In talking about taxes, the governor never made a direct reference to the decision by voters to approve a 3.5% income tax surcharge on earnings of Arizonans above $250,000 for individuals and $500,000 for married couples filing jointly to help fund education.

But Ducey, who opposed that proposition, said states that take more money from residents “chase away opportunity with their new taxes.”

“Why on earth would we ever want to follow their failed and depressing example?” he asked. Ducey said he wants to “reform and lower taxes” to “preserve Arizona’s good name as a responsible, competitive state.”

“On tax reform, let’s think big,” Ducey said.

An aide to the governor said Ducey has in mind reductions in business taxes and individual taxes.

Ducey also said he wants lawmakers to create “better roads and bridges.” But he has consistently opposed any effort to raise gasoline taxes, which finance those improvements, as vehicles are more fuel-efficient and revenues are not keeping pace with traffic.

Ducey also called for:

A “modernized gaming compact” that would expand casino gaming on Arizona reservations in a way to generate more cash for tribes and the state;

  • Expanding access to broadband, which also would mean greater access to telemedicine;
  • Having Arizona continue to be a leader on “water innovation.”
Perpetrators of US Capitol violence “should be prosecuted”

The governor opened his speech by noting the violence last week at the nation’s Capitol.

“In the United States of America, violence and vandalism have no place in the people’s House,” he said. “Perpetrators should be prosecuted to the full extend of the law. Let us resolve that it never happens again.”

In an earlier conversation with Capitol Media Services, Ducey would not say if President Trump bore any responsibility for inciting the riot.

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The partisan split in the Arizona House is the same as last year's, while Republicans lost one seat in the state Senate but remain in the majority in both chambers, as the 2021 legislative session begins Monday, Jan. 11.

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