I have no words to describe what last week at the capitol felt like. However, I’ll try to explain what happened.
Many of you were following the debate over SB 1431, the voucher expansion bill, on Thursday.
Before I talk about Thursday, let me rewind a little bit. I’ve been reading about and studying the issue of vouchers since I was in college, and tracked the spread of them in other states like Wisconsin and Florida. The premise – that public dollars would be used to fund private education, with far less oversight and accountability than public schools, with the dollars largely going to high income households – struck me as troublesome.
Now, to be clear, I support school choice, and support the current role of ESA’s in Arizona, where the dollars largely go to students with disabilities or special needs. Those students often need specialized instruction that some public schools cannot provide, so I support those students receiving the instruction and the care that they need. But expanding it statewide, with no means testing requirement or additional accountability measures in place, was always a non-starter for me.
When I was asked during the campaign about vouchers, I repeated the same answer: I supported the current program, but opposed expanding it statewide. Because I strongly support the public schools in LD18, and proudly stand as a product of those very same schools, the issue was personal to me.
Throughout this session, I spent dozens of hours on this issue, hoping and striving to stop it from passing. I met with several of my Republican colleagues, on multiple occasions, and built close relationships with them in part to explain to them why I was so opposed to SB 1431. We had the votes to stop SB 1431 – all thirteen Democrats, plus two Republicans. Winning my election last year meant we could stave off vouchers for at least another two years, I thought.
I have a good working relationship with Senator Bob Worsley. We get along well, and respect each other. He is without question one of the smartest, savviest senators we have at the capitol. He has a good heart, and truly cares about his constituents. Bob and I spent a lot of time together on this bill, and throughout this entire session, I supported him on certain bills because of that friendship and because I knew he stood with us on stopping the voucher bill.
If you had asked me a week ago about the ESA bill, I would have said it wasn’t moving. We had successfully stopped it to that point, because we knew the bill didn’t have the votes in either the House or the Senate. No matter what happened this session, I knew that it could have been worse – the ESA bill meant that much to me, because I knew what kind of impact it would have on my district if it passed.
We didn’t know the bill was moving until Wednesday, around lunch time. I started hearing about it from staff members and lobbyists, who heard there was an amendment with Senator Worsley’s name on it. I frantically started making calls and sending out text messages, in the hope that we could find out more. We wanted to know what was in the amendment, and if it made the bill at least somewhat better than the original.
In my conversations with Senator Worsley, he reiterated time and again that he wanted a rock solid cap on enrollment, stronger accountability measures, and some kind of means testing requirement, meaning only lower income students would be able to use the program. I found him to be sincere and convincing, and knew the supporters of the bill would not support the kind of accountability he wanted in an amendment.
So by Wednesday night, we knew the supporters had the votes, at least in the Senate. I kept hearing, from multiple sources, that there were enough no votes in the House to kill it. So going into Thursday, it looked like it would pass the Senate but fall short in the House.
Thursday morning, I showed up at the office a little before 7am. We still haven’t seen the amendment. I had a meeting with Senator Worsley scheduled for 8:30am to go over the amendment and the bill – unfortunately, our meeting never happened, because last minute details were being worked out on the amendment, and he was unavailable.
The 21-page amendment was submitted at 9:03am – with floor session scheduled to begin at 10am. That left less an hour for staff and members to read the text of the amendment and attempt to analyze it. This is by far the shortest window of time for an amendment to a bill of this magnitude I have seen this session, and we were not happy about it.
Floor session started at 10am. We debated the bill for over four hours – I asked Senator Worsley several questions during the committee of the whole session, which you can view here (my remarks start at the 1:03:30 and 2:13:25 marks).
Even as we were debating the bill, we knew it was going to pass. This is a strongly ideological issue, and has been a big priority over the years for conservative education groups. Once we lost Senator Worsley, we knew we would lose.
And over in the House, the Republican leadership and the governor’s office spent most of the day Thursday twisting arms to secure enough votes for passage. With 35 Republicans in the House, they could only afford to lose four to get the 31 votes they needed. In the end, the bill passed with exactly 31 votes.
I explained my no vote on the floor for only the second time this session, which you can view here (my remarks start at the 3:25:20 mark). In my remarks, I mentioned the public schools I attended in the district growing up, and how my heart ached (and continues to ache) for the teachers and educators there. This bill is going to have a devastating impact on our five school districts in LD18, and I couldn’t stop it from passing.
Thursday was a really, really difficult day. After I explained my vote, as I sat there at my desk on the floor, processing what was happening, I honestly questioned whether politics was worth it anymore. After all we’ve achieved over the years, and all the work we’ve put in to get here, if we can’t stop the bills that mean the most to us, what’s next? And is it worth the fight and the sacrifice?
I’m still questioning it as I type this. I love my job, love representing my district, and love working on good public policy that helps our state. At the same time, when you put your heart and soul into something every single day, and worked really, really hard to get here, defeat hurts. A lot.
To everyone who followed the vote on Thursday, I’m sorry we let you down. I’m sorry we couldn’t round up the votes to defeat the bill. I’m sorry we didn’t win enough seats in the election last year to prevent bills like this from passing.
As I head into work this week, I hope to focus on the positive, and hope to have an impact on this year’s budget. I’ll stay focused on the motto that hangs on a wall in my Senate office: “My heart is in the work.”
Yours in the fight,