Arizona special session in doubt over agenda dispute

Outgoing Gov. Doug Ducey wants lawmakers to consider more than just education spending if he calls them back.
The Arizona Capitol in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)

The prospect of an end-of-year special legislative session in Arizona is in doubt as a debate unfurls among lawmakers and the governor over what should be on the agenda.

A growing list of potential special session topics is complicating the original intent for bringing lawmakers back to the Capitol: to lift a constitutional cap on how much school districts can spend in the current school year to avoid a looming double-digit budget cut.

“It seems unlikely there will be a special session unless it is involving a few topics,” state Sen. J.D. Mesnard (R), a former House speaker who is now chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in an interview.

The uncertainty comes just as the partisan dynamics in Phoenix are about to shift. Gov.-elect Katie Hobbs (D) takes office in January, with a closely divided Republican-led legislature.

As Gov. Doug Ducey (R) prepares to leave office, some legislators want him to make good on what they say was an agreement to override the K-12 spending cap, known as the aggregate expenditure limit. That cap is set to be exceeded as a result of the budget lawmakers passed, and Ducey signed, earlier this year which significantly boosted K-12 spending.

“The deal was we would pass this budget which he signed and celebrated after we passed it and we would get the special session on the AEL,” state Sen. Sean Bowie (D) told Capitol Media Services.

Ducey, though, has questioned whether the House and Senate have the two-thirds votes they need to waive the constitutional spending limit. The soon-to-depart, two-term governor also made clear this week that he does not want to limit a special session to that one issue.

“There are things in addition to the AEL that I’d like to get done,” Ducey said Monday.

One topic under discussion is an increase in the state’s $7,000 school voucher stipend, known as an empowerment scholarship award, so that it covers more of the cost of a private or parochial education.

In July, Ducey signed into law the expanded voucher program which he called “the most expansive school choice legislation in the nation.”

On Monday, Ducey’s chief of staff, Daniel Ruiz, told reporters that border security and election laws were possible special session topics, according to Capitol Media Services.

Ducey this week backed the idea of requiring counties to allow voters to scan-in their ballots on Election Day to speed up counting. Arizona’s slow ballot-counting process has thrust the highly competitive swing state into the national spotlight and helped to fuel false election conspiracy theories.

Mesnard — the author of a new law that allows, but does not require, counties to offer Election Day ballot scanning — said he would support making it mandatory as part of a special session agenda.

“I think logistically it’s very doable,” Mesnard said

State Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita (R), a vocal advocate for changes to Arizona elections, opposes the ballot scanning proposal but confirmed she has been contacted about potentially resurrecting some of her previous election-related proposals in a special session.

One of Ugenti-Rita’s priorities is to eliminate ballot drop boxes and require voters to return their ballots by mail.

While Ugenti-Rita said she would like another chance to get her election measures passed, she opposes going into special session if the agenda also includes lifting the AEL.

“We shouldn’t have to do that, we have the majorities,” Ugenti-Rita said in an interview Wednesday. “If we want to address election reform intellectually and substantively, we can do that without the AEL.”

Other issues in the special session mix could include limits on executive power and a transportation issue that Ducey previously vetoed, the Arizona Republic reported.

Mesnard also said that before Ducey leaves office he would like the legislature to reconsider a Republican-backed “critical race theory” bill that died at the end of the regular legislative session this year.

“I’m relatively certain the new governor won’t go for that,” Mesnard said of the incoming Democrat.

But time is running short for lawmakers and the governor to agree on a special session agenda.

If an agreement is not reached, Mesnard said there would still be time in the 2023 regular session to lift the education funding cap before school districts are required to cut their spending.

“I have said all along, I would support it in a special [session], I would support it in a regular session,” Mesnard said.