Tucson lawmaker wants to rein in ESAs, expand affordable housing & protect education spending

District 18 Rep. Nancy Gutierrez serves as minority whip in the Arizona House of Representatives’ Democratic caucus. Gutierrez represents a district that stretches across the Tucson metro area, including  neighborhoods near Interstate 10 and Cortaro Farms Road, the Casas Adobes area, the Catalina Foothills and Tucson’s East Side between Country Club and Camino Seco north of Broadway. The Sentinel spoke to Gutierrez on Friday, Jan. 12, after Gov. Katie Hobbs released her budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year. Gutierrez said the first week of the legislative session was busy one. 

“It’s great to be back and I am exhausted,” she said.

What’s your reaction to the governor’s budget plan?

I was at the briefing this morning about her budget, so I’ve seen the outline of it. And I was really grateful that K-12 public school spending is not being lowered. So that that was great. I’m thrilled that she has a priority to keep the reduced lunch free, even though ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) dollars are running now. That’s a huge priority of mine as well. And none of our vital agencies were going to be cut.

I think it’s fair to say that that the Republican in the Legislature have been at odds with Gov. Hobbs. Do you see some areas where legislative Democrats can work with the Republicans?

I hope so. We have been reaching across the aisle, talking to each other this week. In the Education Committee, there is a bill (HB 2174) about getting glucagon in the schools for our students with type 1 diabetes, similar to what we do for the epi-pens. Those are things that benefit our students. I’m actually very thrilled to be able to vote yes on an education bill. On things like that, I do think we’re going to be able to make some positive change. But it is an election year. And we saw that there were over 600 bills introduced, whereas last year where there were only 400. So that that concerns me. What are those bills? I don’t know how many are Republican and how many are Democrat, but I know there will be a lot of message bills. And our messages are not the same. Our messages on our Democratic side are about the people of Arizona and helping them. And I don’t think that’s true for the other side.

What would you like to see the state do about affordable housing this session?

Well, that was another thing about the governor’s budget. I was happy to see that $140 million in the Housing Trust Fund was not touched. Because we definitely need to help families. We have some bills that are being introduced that cap rental increases. I think that’s important. There are some incentives for new homebuyers and some help in the budget for high interest rates and mortgage health. I’m really excited to see that. And our caucus has worked really hard with stakeholders to see how we can how we can make houses and rents affordable. I’ll tell you, when I went to rent an apartment for this session, it was going to be $2,000 a month for a studio apartment near the Capitol.… So it’s just outrageous.

One priority for the Democratic caucus is providing more assistance for child care. What would you like to see happen on that front?

Pima County is really a leader in our state for accessing childcare funds, and really helping as many families as they can. But I’m hoping that in our state budget, we can do even more so that no one is on the waiting list to get those funds. Childcare is a critical issue. Not just for it for families, certainly, but also for single moms who are trying to decide: “Can I get back into the workforce? Or can I not afford it because of childcare?” I’m hoping that we can have some money in the budget to help even more families with childcare costs this this year. And I think that is a priority of the governor.

What are your concerns about the Empowerment Scholarship Account program?

A huge concern is that public tax dollars are going to private schools, micro-schools and homeschools that we have no accountability on whatsoever. There is literally no accountability. And we don’t even know if these students are actually being educated. We just don’t know that. So I’m really concerned that in the next several years, we’re going to realize that a lot of these students are not being educated. And it’s the public schools that are going to be tasked with catching them up so that they can graduate. And that is a difficult task. I’m also concerned about safety with ESAs. I’m a public school teacher. I have a fingerprint clearance card that expires every seven years. I have to get it renewed. And private schools, micro-schools don’t have that requirement. It is one of the things that we are introducing this session. And just end the runaway spending. We’ve seen—I know everybody’s talked about it—the $500 Lego sets and the grand pianos for one family. I don’t know the statistics at Tucson High, but I bet Tucson High does not have any pianos that are newer than 10 years old. And yet, we’re going to let any family that wants to buy a grand piano. I just saw there are actual Apple Watch curriculums now. So that every student on an ESA can get $1,000 Apple Watch. I mean, this is ridiculous spending.

Is there a bill that you’re sponsoring that you’d like to highlight?

Yes, I just dropped a bill. (Pima County) Supervisor Rex Scott and Pima County asked me to run it. It’s a repeal of the state preemption on cities and towns and counties creating their own own gun regulation, so that the people that we vote for on our city councils and county boards of supervisors are the ones who would be able to create gun safety regulations for our county. And I think that that is incredibly important for Arizona. Gun violence is the No. 1 killer of children and Arizona has continued to do absolutely nothing to prevent gun violence, not one thing. So I’m excited to get to be part of that. I don’t think it’s going to go to committee, but at least we’re gonna start the conversation.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention today?

I was really excited that the governor in her State of the State talked about protecting people’s privacy in terms of their reproductive health care. And that she’s all for taking away getting rid of that territorial ban on abortion. That’s extremely important to most Arizonans. And it’s very important to me.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.