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Arizona Gov. Hobbs sets veto record

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs speaks to reporters at Somerton City Hall on Friday, June, 2, 2023. Around her are local leaders including Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls. second from left, Paul De Anda, Public Safety Director for the Cocopah Tribe, second from right, and Somerton Mayor Jerry Anaya, far right.
City of Somerton
Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs speaks to reporters at Somerton City Hall on Friday, June, 2, 2023. Around her are local leaders including Yuma Mayor Doug Nicholls. second from left, Paul De Anda, Public Safety Director for the Cocopah Tribe, second from right, and Somerton Mayor Jerry Anaya, far right.

By Howard Fischer
Capitol Media Services

PHOENIX -- If nothing else, Katie Hobbs has gained her place in history by having vetoed more bills than any other Arizona governor.
In the session just ended, she blew past the record 58 set by fellow Democrat Janet Napolitano in 2005 in April, just three months into the session. And when the dust finally settled, Hobbs had used her veto stamp -- one she actually inherited from Napolitano -- 143 times.
What makes that even more remarkable is that lawmakers actually were working at the Capitol only 62 days this session.
And this in her first year as governor.
"I certainly didn't come here to veto bills,'' Hobbs told Capitol Media Services. What it came down to, she said, was politics.
"I think that the Legislature has shown that, in some regard, it wants to paint me as an obstructionist,'' the governor said. "I think the number of vetoes does the same thing to them.''
But Hobbs said her prodigious use of the veto stamp should come as no surprise, if not to the Republicans who control the Legislature, then the people who voted for her.
"I made it clear when I was campaigning that I was going to be the backstop against things that curtail people's rights, that don't help us with economic growth,'' she said. "And I've done that.''
There were some that fit into that area of rights, such as her rejection of four measures designed to target "drag'' shows and performers. Bills to forbid teachers from using a student's preferred pronoun and telling transgender students which restroom they must use met similar fates.
Also failing to pass muster were proposals to tell banks they have to do business with gun dealers and manufacturers, imposing new hurdles on placement of solar and wind farms, and allowing weapons on school campuses.
But perhaps the biggest group of vetoes were efforts by Republicans to change some of the rules for elections following the 2020 loss of Donald Trump in Arizona and the fact that Democrats outpolled their Republican foes in 2022 for governor, secretary of state and attorney general. They sent her measures changing the verification procedures for early ballots, altering how ballot signature challenges are handled, barring the use of artificial intelligence anywhere in the election process, making it easier to remove people from the early voting list and requiring the public posting of ballot images.
And there even was a bill to let counties do hand counts instead of use tabulation machines, an outgrowth of baseless claims by GOP losers that the system was rigged.
Hobbs said one big reason she reached 143 vetoes is that Republican lawmakers who might have otherwise opposed some of the measures chose to simply go along with colleagues to get along.
"There's a lot of bills that got to my desk that would never have got to Doug Ducey's desk,'' she said, her Republican predecessor. "Republicans didn't care to use their political capital to stop it because they knew I would veto.''
Does that make her the best friend of moderate Republicans?
"I don't know that they would say that,'' she laughed.
One of the biggest vetoes -- actually 13 separate ones -- was over the "skinny budget'' approved by GOP lawmakers in February, one that simply extended current funding into the new fiscal year. And they essentially dared her to veto it, saying if she didn't sign it they would not enact another one -- and the state would run out of authority to pay its bills on July 1.
She didn't balk, rejecting the plan because it did not focus on what she said were funding priorities. And that forced GOP leaders back to the bargaining table where they came up with a plan for a $17.8 billion spending plan that got bipartisan support.
But Hobbs refused to use the threat of another veto to quash a program she had sought to kill or at least curb: universal vouchers to allow students to attend private and parochial schools -- or get home schooled -- at public expense.
First approved in 2011, vouchers, formally known as empowerment scholarship accounts, were billed as providing an option for students with special needs. But lawmakers repeatedly expanded eligibility to include foster children, those living on reservations and children attending schools rated D or F.
As of last year there were about 12,000 youngsters enrolled, eligible for the vouchers which provide an average of about $7,200 a year.
In 2022, however, the Republican-controlled Legislature removed all restrictions, opening the program to any of the approximately 1.1 million students attending public schools. Enrollment quickly ballooned past 50,000.
In her State of the State speech, Hobbs said the system "lacks accountability and will likely bankrupt the state,'' putting the cost at $1.5 billion over the next 10 years.
But the budget she negotiated made absolutely no change in eligibility. And that didn't please Democrat lawmakers.
"If there is no cap on ESA vouchers in this budget, we will have a catastrophic deficit next year,'' Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein said in a Twitter post shortly after the deal was announced.
That proved prescient.
Less than two weeks after Hobbs agreed to ink the new version, state schools chief Tom Horne produced estimates that 100,000 students would seek vouchers and the cost for just the new school year would hit $900 million, 63% more than what lawmakers had just put into the new budget. The governor immediately responded promising a new effort to get state lawmakers to curb the growth.
"Obviously, this number wasn't published before the budget,'' she said at the time. "We have a different set of facts that we're dealing with now in terms of actual cost.''
By that point, however, the governor had little bargaining leverage with GOP lawmakers, what with her signature already on the $17.8 billion spending plan.
And a further estimate she produced just last month claiming the pricetag had reached $944 million did nothing to move Republican lawmakers to reconsider the just-adopted budget that she signed.
Hobbs, in her post-session interview, defended not vetoing the budget when she had a chance -- and could have demanded, if not a repeal of the expansion, at least a cap on growth.
"It was absolutely a non-starter in those discussions'' with GOP leaders, the governor said. Instead, the governor had to settle for what language in the budget for what she called "metrics'' that will provide information on that growth, something she said she believes will convince lawmakers -- eventually -- that the program just can't grow as fast.
At least part of the reason for the sharply rising cost is the number of parents who had been paying to send their children to private and parochial school on their own dime opting in to the state program.
That doesn't bother House Speaker Ben Toma. The Peoria Republican said it is irrelevant that parents now have the opportunity to shift the cost of their children's private school tuition from themselves to the state, saying they pay taxes like everyone else.
Hobbs said it's an illusion to suggest that the vouchers are going to help everyone.
"Most poor families, if they get a voucher, are still not going to be able to afford private school tuition,'' Hobbs said.
Figures from the Education Data Initiative said the current average cost of tuition at private elementary schools is $9,365. That compares with the basic voucher for elementary and middle school students who have no special needs at $6,764.
High school vouchers are worth $7,532; EDI says the average private school cost in Arizona is $13,772.
And that doesn't count whether a family has the resources to actually get their children to a private school.
"Every kid, almost across the state, has a neighborhood public school,'' Hobbs said. "And if we invest in those schools and it goes to the best schools everywhere, then every kid will have access to that quality education.''
But while the governor was unwilling to threaten a veto on the budget over vouchers, she did show this session she was willing to use it to coerce lawmakers to produce something more to her liking, even at the risk of blowing everything up.
That's what happened with Proposition 400, the measure authorizing a vote in Maricopa County to extend its half-cent sales tax for transportation projects for another 20 years.
Hobbs rejected the first plan in June, not only because it provided less money for mass transit than she wanted but also because it would have required two separate votes: one for cash for roads and most mass transit and a separate one for light rail.
In vetoing the measure, the governor ran the risk that lawmakers would decide they were unwilling to give more and refuse to reconsider. And the failure of legislators to act would have resulted in expiration of the current levy in 2025.
But Republican leaders did eventually return to the table, agreeing to a final plan for a single vote and more money for mass transit, though not as much as Hobbs had wanted.
On Twitter: @azcapmedia