Education, how to fund it takes center stage as lawmakers kick off session on Monday

PHOENIX – While public education is expected to be the top issue when lawmakers return on Monday, a few other subjects are likely to command some attention.

Health care

Look for the governor to propose statutory limits on the amount of opioids doctors can prescribe.

Gov. Doug Ducey, facing what he last year declared to be a health care emergency, already has laid the groundwork for what he wants. He ordered the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state’s Medicaid program, to limit the number of days of opioids someone could receive. That’s based on conclusions by state Health Director Cara Christ that prescriptions for more than five days lead to a sharply higher risk of addiction.

That same order also limits dosages.

Look for Ducey to propose similar – if not stricter – limits on what all other doctors in Arizona can prescribe.

Less clear is whether the medical community will go along with putting those into state statute.

In general, doctors do not like lawmakers telling them how to practice medicine. A spokeswoman for the Arizona Medical Association said members of her group are working with Christ to come up with something accessible.

And there may be something else.

Several states have gone on the offensive, filing lawsuits against opioid manufacturers for improperly promoting their drugs.

In Arizona, that has taken the form of only a single lawsuit filed against Chandler-based Insys Therapeutics by Attorney General Mark Brnovich. Ducey suggested a more aggressive approach may be necessary.

“I think all bad actors need to be held accountable in this solution,’’ he told Capitol Media Services. “All should be looked at.’’

Also on the health front, Arizona and other states are waiting for Congress to finally reauthorize the Children’s Health Insurance Program. It provides nearly free care to children in families whose parents earn too much to qualify for Medicaid but still have trouble with commercial health insurance premiums.

Funding ran out Oct. 1, but some interim federal legislation and leftover state dollars are likely to keep the program operating here through at least March.

If Congress fails to act, it will be up to Ducey and lawmakers to find the cash – about $9.3 million a month – or tell the more than 24,000 children that their coverage will end.

Higher education

Four years ago, Ducey got elected governor at least in part based on claims that tuition at the state’s three universities was too high. The blame was put at the feet of Fred DuVal, his Democrat foe, who headed the Board of Regents.

Now it is Brnovich who is asking a judge to determine that current tuition runs afoul of a state constitutional provision that instruction be “as nearly free as possible.’’ That, in turn, has Ducey defending the schools at “accessible and affordable’’ and swatting Brnovich for making a legal case out of it.

The more immediate problem for the schools could come from Rep. Mark Finchem, R-Oro Valley, who previously has criticized the regents and their policies.

Legislation last year to rein in the board went nowhere. This year Finchem is armed with a formal opinion by Brnovich saying that it is entirely within the purview of the Legislature to determine the role of the board in governing the schools.

Water

State lawmakers are going to revisit the old adage that in Arizona whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting.

It’s been nearly three decades since the last comprehensive overhaul of state water laws, compete with details on who gets to use it and how – including separate rules for surface and groundwater – and where it can be sold or transferred. Those laws also can affect growth as developers in some areas of the state must show a 100-year assured water supply.

The issue has taken on new urgency with the ongoing drought.

Agreements governing who gets water from the Colorado River are based on years of higher flow. Now with Lake Mead reaching perilously low levels, Arizona needs to figure out how to deal with the issue as it has the lowest priority claim to water in the lake, meaning it will be the first to have its allocation cut.

There’s a separate turf fight brewing between the Department of Water Resources, which is under Ducey’s control, and the Central Arizona Water Conservation District which has its own elected governing board.

Social issues

While abortion has been legal in this country since 1973 that has not stopped foes from seeking to find ways to curb the practice.

In past sessions that has included various restrictions on how and where pregnancies can be terminated, and by whom. There also have been attacks on indirect funding – state and federal law cannot be used for elective abortions – by going after family planning dollars given to Planned Parenthood.

One potential target this year is moving up the date beyond which abortions cannot generally be performed to the 20th week of pregnancy. That is earlier than current laws which require doctors to try to save the lives of fetuses considered “viable,’’ generally not until at least 22 weeks.

There also will be some debate about how young someone can be to legally marry.

While would-be couples can get hitched on their own at 18, there is no minimum age for those who can obtain parental permission or, in some cases, also get the consent of a judge.

Legislators also are likely to take a look at marijuana from both sides of the debate.

On one hand, there will be legislation to legalize the drug for recreational use. There also are bills to actually put some curbs into the 2010 voter-approved law allowing people with certain medical conditions to use the drug.

Also look for a renewed effort to keep minors from using indoor tanning booths.