Hobbs’ budget plan is anything but ‘unserious’ when it comes to flipping control of the legislature

Republicans were quick to dub Gov. Katie Hobbs’ budget proposal an “unserious mess,” pointing to her call for limiting the use of school vouchers as the chief reason why wasted no time throwing her spending plan in the trash.

Their reaction was similar to the one that journalists had in their private briefing Friday afternoon with Hobbs’ staff, during which the governor’s top aides walked through how she wants to bridge a large-and-growing budget deficit while still increasing spending in key areas.

As the aides went through a slideshow, reporters were quick to point out that Hobbs’ deficit projections were much lower — about half, really — than those of legislative budget analysts. And there was no shortage of declarations from some gathered around the conference room table that the governor was wasting her time by building a budget that maintains solvency only if major changes are made to school choice programs, including universal vouchers.

And if you assume that this spending plan was ever intended to serve as a starting point for legislators as they build their own budget, I guess maybe that’s true. There’s no doubt that all of Hobbs’ proposals relating to school choice — the important ones for the budget would be requiring voucher users to have 100 days enrolled in a public school and repealing the state’s private school scholarship tax credit program — are dead on arrival in the legislative chambers.

You can guarantee that Republicans will look at the deficit, which analysts say will be short-term and is not indicative of fundamental budgeting problems, and pounce at the opportunity to slash state spending. Hobbs, meanwhile, proposed very few cuts, choosing instead to bridge the shortfall largely with some accounting maneuvers and clawing back some unspent money in the current budget.

When reporters repeatedly made those points during the briefing, Hobbs’ aides all but acknowledged the reality that those ideas would meet derision from GOP lawmakers. But the purpose, they said, was to “have a discussion” about the ideas and the issues — a response that was met with audible groans and more than a few eye rolls. 

The reaction is a crystalline example of the way political journalists fail to think beyond the Capitol complex at 1700 West Washington. 

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

SUBSCRIBE

This budget isn’t proposed because Hobbs, or anyone on her team, thinks it will actually win support with Republican legislators. And those discussions and conversations that the governor’s aides said they hope to start on topics like school vouchers and other GOP sacred cows aren’t going to be with lawmakers.

They’re going to be with voters. And there’s no more important time for her to start telling them that Republicans are backing out-of-control, unaccountable spending and handouts to the wealthy than right now.

Success for Hobbs in 2024 has much less to do with budgetary policy than it does with election wins. Getting a victory at the ballot box in November could change the trajectory of her time as governor.

Republicans hold the slimmest of majorities in the legislature right now — just a single seat in both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Democrats are already laying the groundwork to embark on an all-out war to capture control of the Arizona legislature for the first time since the mid-1960s.

Hobbs plays an outsized role in helping them do that. She’s the standard bearer for her party in Arizona, and she has a bully pulpit that she must use well if Democrats want any chance at winning legislative majorities.

Last year, she swatted away a record number of Republican bills, many of them downright nutty. I wrote in this space how GOP lawmakers, in their zeal to force Hobbs to take a stand on any number of culture war issues and far-right priorities, were giving Hobbs and Democrats ample ammunition to make the case that Republicans weren’t serious about governing and shouldn’t be in power.

This year, Hobbs can’t merely rely on her veto stamp. The 143 vetoes last year are the groundwork for her message to voters, but it can’t be the entirety of it. Rather, she must control the narrative and show voters the Arizona she thinks is possible — and then let Republicans demonstrate exactly why it won’t happen.

And Hobbs has clearly decided that Arizona voters won’t look kindly on a school voucher program that is disproportionately helping the wealthiest among us — in many cases, being used by families that already paid full-freight for private school tuition — and has few guardrails on spending, which is why it’s been used to pay for things like a baby grand piano and luxury car driving lessons.

This budget is only an “unserious mess” if you think it’s meant for GOP lawmakers. But as a proposal aimed at voters who are uncomfortable with an increasingly extreme Republican Party, it’s not something to be taken lightly.

Comments are closed.