Gov. Ducey finds himself on the defensive in Tucson debate
PHOENIX — Incumbent Gov. Doug Ducey repeatedly throws around the phrase that Arizona is “open for business” as both a commercial for the state and as proof his policies are what’s driving the state economy.
But this week, in the second of two gubernatorial debates, Ducey found himself on the defensive for policies and laws he signed that ended up with the death of one pedestrian and thousands of Arizonans getting inaccurate blood test results.
And the governor’s claim that the his policies have resulted in the Arizona economy doing so much better than surrounding states depends on what data are considered.
Ducey said that since he took office in January 2015, the state has added about 242,000 private sector jobs. That does outstrip the 192,000 jobs added in the prior 43 months.
But at the height of the recession, the state’s jobless rate topped 11 percent. By the time Ducey took office, it already had fallen back to 6.4 percent. It’s now at 4.6 percent. The governor uses the line that the last time the Arizona unemployment rate was this low "people were renting their videos from Blockbuster." For the record, that was in January 2008. Now just a single Blockbuster store remains in Oregon.
But the state appears to have settled into what could be a new normal, with that jobless rate having barely budged in the past year.
The unemployment figure also is higher than not just the national rate of 3.9 percent. But it also is higher than Utah, Nevada, Colorado -- and even California whose regulation and tax policies Ducey repeatedly says is driving businesses to move to Arizona.
New Mexico’s rate matches Arizona. And Arizona’s unemployment rate still remains a full point higher than its historic low of 3.6 percent in July 2007.
It isn’t just Ducey who is looking at the figures he wants. During the debate, Democrat David Garcia claimed that at the end of 2017 Arizona’s rate of job growth was lower than surrounding states with the exception of New Mexico.
That’s true -- as a snapshot of that period of time.
But there are more recent figures. And the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put Arizona’s current year-over-year job growth at 2.9 percent. While less Utah and Nevada have faster job growth, the Arizona numbers are better than California, Colorado and New Mexico.
There are some bright signs on the horizon.
Kiplinger Magazine predicts that job growth in Arizona this year will be the seventh fastest in the nation and that the jobless rate by the end of the year should hit 4.5 percent. And the writers credit "Arizona’s more flexible regulatory environment" as attractive to business.
U.S. News & World Report is a little less positive, putting Arizona at No. 14 in its list of the best states for growth. And USA Today lists Arizona at No. 24, citing the state’s high poverty rate and "below average educational attainment rates at both the high school and college level."
That "flexible regulatory environment’’ has its own flip side.
Earlier this year a woman walking her bicycle across a dark Tempe street, not at an intersection, was struck and killed by an autonomous vehicle that Uber was testing. A video revealed the backup driver was watching a TV show.
Uber’s testing in Arizona was no accident. In fact it was directly related to the governor issuing an executive order in 2015 allowing designers of autonomous vehicles to begin testing them on Arizona roads with minimal state oversight and regulation. More to the point, Uber specifically moved its 16 test vehicles out of California in a high-profile move, complete with a photo-op for Ducey, because that state wanted the cars to be registered as test vehicle and have the company file various reports -- things that Arizona did not demand.
Ducey said at the time that proves Arizona is friendlier for business than its neighbor to the west.
"The message today is Arizona’s open for business,’’ he said. "We’re welcoming this technology. We’re not pushing it out of our state.’’
It took three more years for Ducey to actually issue some more specific safety rules, including that the vehicles have to comply with all traffic laws and the operator can be cited - even if the operator turns out to be the corporation that built the vehicle and there’s no one behind the wheel.
And only after the fatal accident did Ducey rescind Uber’s ability to test its cars in Arizona. On Tuesday, the governor defended opening up the state to testing of autonomous vehicles, saying it needs to be seen through the lens of the larger goal of public safety.
"We lose over 800 Arizonans a year on our highways due to human error from drivers," he said.
And the death of the pedestrian?
"What happened in that accident was tragic," Ducey said. "But I want to see the 38,000 people that die in avoidable accidents across the United States, I want to see that problem solved.’’
Then there’s Theranos.
In 2015, state lawmakers approved -- and Ducey publicly signed -- legislation to expand the kinds of laboratory tests that people can seek without a doctor’s recommendation. But the real point of the measure was to allow Theranos, which lobbied for approval, to market its unique method of doing accurate tests with just a minimal amount of blood.
Turns out the company’s claims were bogus, with Theranos subsequently admitting that more than 10 percent of the test results given to Arizonans by the company were "ultimately voided or corrected.’’
Ducey chalked that up to "bad actors,’’ saying there ultimately was accountability -- in the form of a consumer fraud lawsuit brought by Attorney General Mark Brnovich who got $4.6 million in refunds. And the company is now out of business.
But the governor was unapologetic for signing the legislation.
"We still want to be a welcoming place to medical innovations in the state of Arizona while protecting public health and public safety."
And sometimes Ducey didn’t even bother to wait for legislation.
Shortly after taking office in 2015, Ducey fired the direct of the Department of Weights and Measures.
The reason? Shawn Marquez had been enforcing laws regulating taxi cabs against Uber and Lyft. Those law specifically require anyone transporting people for money to conduct background checks on drivers and have insurance coverage.
More to the point, Marquez told Ducey he intended to run a "sting’’ operation on the rideshare services as the Super Bowl was coming to Arizona.
Ducey did more than fire Marquez.
He appointed former House Speaker Andy Tobin to run the agency. And then Ducey, who acknowledged that the laws on offering rides for money actually applied to rideshare companies, told Tobin not to enforce those laws while legislators looked for a fix.
It actually took several more months of non-enforcement for lawmakers to actually approve a measure which provided parallel but somewhat different laws to govern the ridesharing services and the people who drive for them.