GOP lawmakers skewer Hobbs' budget at Capitol as school voucher advocates protest rollback plan

Mary Jo Pitzl
Arizona Republic

Gov. Katie Hobbs' first budget proposal got off to a rocky start Monday.

While Republican lawmakers inside the Capitol questioned almost every aspect of the Democratic governor's $17.1 billion plan, school choice supporters outside staged a noisy rally to oppose Hobbs' proposal to repeal the universal voucher program.

To chants of "ESA is here to stay", supporters of the Empowerment Scholarship Account program vowed to fight to keep the program that lawmakers expanded just seven months ago. The ESA scholarships can pay for a range of educational purposes, from private school tuition to tutors to micro schools and home schooling. The average voucher is worth about $7,000.

Nearly 46,000 children now get their schooling through the ESA program, said Stacey Brown, herself the parent of ESA students. Hobbs' proposal would harm children, she said at the Capitol rally.

Children hold signs at a protest at the Rose Garden outside the Arizona state Capitol in Phoenix on Jan. 17, 2023.

"This is our right," Brown said, as the crowd cheered and children waved handmade signs.

Shannon Hayes, lead advocate of the Black Mothers Forums, said the ESA scholarships are a lifesaver for children of color, who are "criminalized" by the public schools.

Her mission, she said, is to create "a mass exodus of Black children out of the public education system."

Legislative leaders added their support.

"We completely stand with these parents," said Senate President Warren Petersen, R-Gilbert. "We're not going to let it happen."

Hobbs last week unveiled her budget, headlined by a plan to repeal the universal voucher program and revert to the more limited program that serves about 12,000 Arizona students. That move, along with ending results-based funding for high-performing schools, would add nearly $200 million to the public school budget next year.

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Children hold signs at a protest at the Rose Garden outside the Arizona state Capitol in Phoenix on Jan. 17, 2023.

Sarah Brown, director of the governor's budget office, said Hobbs views universal vouchers as inequitable, catering primarily to wealthier families who already can afford private school tuition while diverting money from the public school system.

Rolling the program back would save the state as much as $2.3 billion over the next decade, Brown said. That's up from the $1.5 billion cost that the governor cited last week in her State of the State address, Brown added, citing new budget projections.

Republicans disputed Hobbs' assertion that the program is a "drain" on state finances. Sen. Sine Kerr, R-Buckeye, said the ESA program's price tag is the cost of "educational freedom."

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Rep. Matt Gress, R-Phoenix, questioned why the governor supports a limited ESA program, which caters to specific categories of children, such as disabled, foster youth and children of military families.

“Why preserve the program in any way if the governor believes this is a drain on the budget?” said Gress, who most recently served as Gov. Doug Ducey's budget director.

Shannon Hayes speaks at a protest at the Rose Garden outside the Arizona state Capitol in Phoenix on Jan. 17, 2023.

Like her response to many of the questions lobbed at her by lawmakers, Brown said the intent is to provide a budget that benefits all children and is equitable.

Bumpy road for bipartisanship

The questioning, almost entirely from Republicans, signaled the challenges to achieve the bipartisan support necessary to pass a budget. It's been 14 years since the GOP-controlled Legislature has had to work with a Democratic governor, and some of the most pitched battles are fought on the budget battlefield.

From increased college scholarships, to homeless aid to prison healthcare, lawmakers peppered Brown with questions, many of which she said they could iron out in future discussions, without providing further details.

Protestors hold signs at a protest at the Rose Garden outside the Arizona state Capitol in Phoenix on Jan. 17, 2023.

Gress and Rep. David Livingston, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, questioned why Hobbs wants to take money away from "freedom schools" at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University. GOP lawmakers have funded those programs for several years to combat what they perceive as liberal bias in university classrooms.

Brown said the funds will remain in the universities' budgets but will not be earmarked for the schools specifically.

Livingston, R-Peoria, took issue with the $150 million deposit Hobbs proposes for the state's Housing Trust Fund, saying he didn't see any evidence that it would take people off the street but instead seems intended to help renters avoid eviction.

He also was incredulous that the budget proposal doesn't include money, as he sees it, to help homeless pregnant women. That was a reference to a Hobbs proposal to move $200,000 from a program for pregnant women services to the state health department to be used for pregnancy services "that are inclusive of all options and support person choice."

Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, questioned whether that money could pay to provide information on how to obtain an abortion outside of Arizona. Brown replied it could get used for any legal option.

How long will it take to get a budget?

The contentious hearing, in which Democrats' attempts to object were often ignored, ended on a less than hopeful note.

“I am looking forward to attempting to work with you guys," Livingston said, referring to the governor's staff. But he made it clear he wasn't happy with the proposal, which seeks to dial back programs created by previous Republican administrations.

Livingston added his goal is to have legislative work wrapped up so he has time to get to Michigan in May, where he is building a second home. That seems unlikely in 2023, and he foreshadowed a government shutdown if lawmakers and Hobbs can't agree on a budget by July 1.

The question now, he said, is “How do we do layoffs in July?”

Reach the reporter at maryjo.pitzl@arizonarepublic.com and follow her on Twitter @maryjpitzl. Reporter Ray Stern contributed to this story.