Gov. Janet Napolitano challenged state legislators Monday to keep moving forward in the face of an economic downturn, putting forth proposals to increase health coverage, offer free college tuition, crack down on human smugglers and improve substance abuse treatment for parents who need it.
In her sixth State of the State address to open the Legislature’s regular session, the two-term Democrat also called on lawmakers to put a statewide transportation plan to voters that includes “a robust rail element,” set energy efficiency standards for new construction and require health insurance companies to disclose timely information about their coverage.
Reaction Republicans, who control both the House and the Senate, was tepid. They questioned how some of the governor’s proposals could be accomplished without extra state funding, and pointed out that several of her ideas had been tried before, and failed, while others were already under way.
“It’s funny how old ideas come out to become new visions,” said House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix. “The governor keeps using the words, ‘cost neutral.’ The devil is in the details.”
Napolitano acknowledged the state’s current-year budget deficit, which hovers around $1 billion, but said it’s a temporary setback and “not an excuse to stop working toward what we all believe in.”
“Because the story we’re writing is not about mediocrity,” she said. “The story of Arizona’s future is about how great promise overcomes great challenge.”
The governor issued 10 executive orders Monday to implement much of her agenda.
Lawmakers on the House and Senate appropriations committees began work a week early to try to whittle away at this year’s $10.6 billion budget. Next week, lawmakers will begin meetings about next year’s spending plan, which projected to be even more out of whack, with an estimated $1.7 billion deficit.
The governor organized her speech into five chapters, with education first and foremost.
“I believe that education is the most important chapter for our future,” she said. “Our education system is linked to the needs of Arizona’s economic future. There is no separation.”
Napolitano called for the state’s three universities to guarantee a “fixed-rate” tuition, vowing that costs for individual students would not rise for four years.
She also wants eighth-graders – who will be graduating in Arizona’s centennial year of 2012 – to get free tuition to any community college or state university, provided they earn at least a “B” average and “stay out of trouble.”
And for the second year in a row, the governor called on policy-makers to raise the dropout age from 16 to 18 years old.
State school superintendent Tom Horne opposed both K-12 proposals.
“It will put unbearable pressure on teachers to give “Bs” to everybody so they can get free college,” he said.
But he acknowledged that the plan was politically crafty. “When you put it off until 2012, it’s somebody else’s problem.”
Horne also said raising the dropout age means older students who would’ve quit will disrupt the education of everyone else.
“You can force 8-year-olds to do something they don’t want to do,” he said, “but if (16 and 17-year-olds) don’t want to be there, they’re going to make it impossible to educate anybody.”
For the second chapter, economic prosperity, Napolitano proposed a three-step plan to deal with the “subprime-lending debacle” that has resulted in record foreclosures around the state and is largely to blame for sagging revenues.
She wants lawmakers to license “equity purchasers” and loan officers and has directed the state Department of Real Estate to publish a homebuyers’ “bill of rights” to help residents make more informed decisions.
The third chapter, public safety, encompassed everything from illegal immigration to substance abuse.
Napolitano urged the Legislature to fix the employer sanctions law passed last session and put money into prosecution, but Republicans said it needs time to work.
Saying the law wasn’t properly funded, she suggested using money seized from successful prosecutions.
“Too often lately, we see this money go for TV commercials that amount to little more than publicity for an elected official,” the governor said to wild applause from lawmakers. “That’s the wrong way to use it.”
Rep. Eddie Farnsworth, R-Mesa, said Napolitano herself used public money to publicize her work as state attorney general.
“What she’s trying to do away with, she perfected it,” Farnsworth said.
Napolitano also called on lawmakers to pass legislation that would target property managers of drop houses.
“Strengthen the law, so we can get to that middleman,” Napolitano said.
In chapter four, transportation and growth, the governor urge the Legislature to write a comprehensive, statewide transportation plan and put it to voters in 2008 or 2009.
Though lawmakers agreed that a plan is needed, some were dubious it could be crafted this session.
The governor has been meeting with lawmakers and business leaders on transportation, as well as a measure to reform laws governing 9.3 million acres of state trust land.
“If you deal with state transportation and state trust land reform, you will have created an important legacy for Arizona,” she said.
To replace the “crazy quilt” of local energy conservation rules, Napolitano said, the state needs minimum standards for all new construction and new energy efficiency standards for appliances.
Finally, the governor offered broad plans for health care, the fifth chapter, including extending coverage to children up to the age of 25, and allowing families to buy into the state’s indigent health care program to get coverage for their children.
“For parents fighting for health care for their children, this new program – call it “KidsShare” – would be a viable option,” she said.
But Republicans said it’s just another example of big government getting bigger.
“It can’t be just about expanding government and regulation in these areas,” said Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert.
And Farnsworth accused Napolitano of leaving a legacy of debt.
“What she’s going to leave is a legacy of social programs, where everyone is reliant on government for everything,” he said. “She’s ignoring the kids who are going to have to pay for our fiscal malpractice.”
To improve health care in rural areas and recruit more doctors, nurses and dentists, Napolitano wants to triple funding for a state loan repayment program. She said there would be no state costs involved.
Among her executive orders Monday, Napolitano directed that the parents of children in the child welfare system be the “first in line” for substance abuse treatment.
Republicans have targeted the treatment program for $2 million in cuts to help balance the budget.
Another executive order eliminates about a dozen state boards and commissions that have run their course.
The GOP plan would rely on budget cuts to bridge most of the current-year deficit, while Napolitano’s plan makes less than $100 million in actual cuts. Republicans said her ideas were too lofty, and potentially expensive, in such tight economic times.
But Napolitano urged lawmakers to look past the budget deficit and keep planning for the future.
“Our story is also about a government that lived up to its end of the bargain, and didn’t give up when the going got a little tough.”
State of the State highlights
Key proposals by Gov. Janet Napolitano in her State of the State address:
• Provide free tuition at state universities and community colleges for any child who maintains a B average in high school.
• Fix the rate of tuition at state universities for all four years.
• Raise dropout age to 18.
• Enact new protections for homeowners against being cheated out of the equity in their houses.
• Approve regulation of mortgage loan officers.
• Require health insurers to cover children on their parents’ policy until age 25 regardless of student status.
• Allow parents to buy insurance for their children in a state program at the state’s cost.
• Prohibit anonymous complaints under state’s employer sanctions law.
• Create exceptions to loss of license under sanctions law for firms that provide “vital infrastructure” like nursing homes and hospitals.
• Forbid use of proceeds seized by prosecutors in racketeering cases for publicity for elected officials.
• Appropriate additional funds for more Child Protective Services caseworkers.
• Approve alternate “3-in-1” state driver’s license.
• Put a measure on the ballot this year or next to fund transportation improvements with new taxes.
• Approve a Tucson-Phoenix passenger rail line.
• Enact statewide conservation standards for new construction.
• Address “greenhouse gas” emissions with energy efficiency standards for appliances.
• Allow law enforcement to prosecute property managers who rent out homes as “drop houses” for illegal immigrants.
• Enact a yet-to-be finalized plan to reform how state trust lands are managed and sold off.
SOURCE: Capitol Media Services