Republicans, Democrats stake out positions for the new legislative session

Democratic leaders and members of the far-right Arizona Freedom Caucus held press conferences on the opening day of the legislative session that highlighted their diverging views. 

Members of the Democratic Senate and House of Representatives gathered Monday morning to lay out their priorities for the legislative session ahead of Gov. Katie Hobbs’ State of the State address, among them reproductive freedom, childcare, water and gun safety. 

They also want to rein in the universal school voucher program, formally known as Empowerment Scholarship Accounts, which Arizona Republicans expanded in a previous session. The controversial expansion of the program has led to budgetary issues as the state faces a $407 million budget shortfall

Members of the Arizona Freedom Caucus were quick to say that they will oppose any changes to the ESA program proposed by Democratic lawmakers and Hobbs, likening their proposals to “death by a thousand cuts,” Sen. Jake Hoffman, R-Queen Creek, said in a press conference Monday morning. 

Lawmakers from both parties took shots at their counterparts in their morning press conferences, but only Democratic lawmakers made mention of attempting to reach bipartisan support on some of their measures. Democrats will need Republican support if they hope to send any bills to the governor’s desk, as Republicans have one-vote majorities in both chambers. 

“Our young people are watching us and relying on the Democrats to be the adults in the room,” Rep. Oscar De Los Santos, D-Phoenix, said about Democratic priorities in the coming session. 

Hoffman, surrounded by supporters of the ESA program, claimed that Democratic lawmakers “want to strip you of your right to choose your child’s educational future,” and added that they plan to kill any ESA-related measures that come before them. Hoffman, chairman of the Arizona Freedom Caucus, which has at times butted heads with fellow Republicans, said that the GOP caucus is also behind them in this effort. 

Democratic priorities 

Along with a large number of voucher bills that Democratic members have worked with the Governor’s Office on, Democrats laid out their plans for a number of reforms for the state. 

“We are ushering in a new era of collaboration,” Senate Minority Leader Mitzi Epstein said, adding that Democratic lawmakers are not working in “silos” and plan to attack each issue as a united front. 

Among the key issues Democratic lawmakers are aiming to tackle this session include repealing a territorial-era ban on abortions, as well as repealing an abortion reporting law which collects information on the types of abortions, when they’re being done and more for an annual public report by the Arizona Department of Health Services. 

“It is Big Brother Republicans getting into our lives,” Epstein said of the laws, adding “we are committed to fighting.” 

The largest plan Democrats have is tackling the wildly expensive school voucher program. One proposal aimed at addressing security questions for students who use the state funds to attend private schools is said to have bipartisan support, according to Sen. Christine Marsh, D-Phoenix. 

However, Hoffman said that they intend to block the measure, which aims to make fingerprinting and background checks mandatory for private schools who accept ESA money. Hoffman claimed that schools already do this, calling it an additional layer of bureaucracy. (State law does not require private schools to do fingerprinting or background checks.) When asked, Hoffman could not say how he knows that all private schools are doing fingerprinting and background checks, replying that his kids’ school does. 

Democrats will also face an uphill battle with other proposals aimed at adding accountability to the school voucher system, such as expanding the scope of the Arizona Auditor General’s authority to investigate issues within the program and adding additional layers of accountability with large purchases. Hoffman said Republicans oppose these sorts of measures and claimed that Hobbs and Democrats are aiming to destroy the program altogether. 

Last year, in her first State of the State speech, Hobbs called for repealing the universal voucher expansion that had been passed in 2022. The call was roundly rejected by the GOP-controlled legislature and went nowhere. This year, Hobbs is calling for a package of reforms aimed at adding accountability and transparency to the program.

Democratic members are also aiming to reduce the cost of prescription drugs in Arizona by ensuring that all prescriptions do not go over the fair market price set by Medicare and Medicaid. Democrats also continued to say that they intend to address the state’s affordable housing crisis

Freedom Caucus fires back 

At a press conference shortly after the Democrats, Hoffman said that conservatives intend to push back against any reforms to the ESA program, calling Hobbs and the Democrats plan “abhorrent.” 

Members of the party also held up signs with a print-out of a November post on X, formerly known as Twitter, by the Pima County Democratic Party which read that it intended to “kill” school choice. The post appears to have been deleted. 

Hoffman said that the measure which would require fingerprinting and background checks is a solution “in search of a problem,” claiming that public schools have faced issues with teacher arrests at a higher rate. Hoffman also called price gouging an “imaginary issue.” 

Hoffman said that Hobbs’ ESA proposals will be “dead on arrival.” 

Jenny Clark, a school vouchers advocate, said that Hobbs plan is to “hyper-regulate” private schools and called it “fear tactics.” 

“Governor Hobbs, we will not sit idly by while you attempt to attack our children and their education,” Clark said to the crowd. 

When asked how the proposals would hamper private schools, Hoffman said the proposals are meant to “look good on the surface” and will create too much bureaucracy. 

“The government does not need to tell the schools what they are already doing,” Hoffman said before taking aim at federal agencies like the United States Postal Service and AmTrak.

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