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Gov. Doug Ducey on Thursday defends state laws and his policies against mask mandates even as the Biden administration may investigate whether they violate the civil rights of students and staff. 

PHOENIX -- Gov. Doug Ducey lashed out Thursday at President Biden's bid to go after governors who ban mask mandates, calling his administration's message to him "weak and pathetic.''

Meeting with reporters, the governor said there's nothing wrong, legally or otherwise, with his decision to provide new education funding only to K-12 schools that don't require students and staff to wear masks. He said those dollars are reserved for schools interested in teaching which, for him, includes obeying state law.

But Ducey also directed his ire at the state's three universities who have so far ignored his claim that it is illegal for them to require the use of masks indoors by all those on campus.

"People should follow the law,'' he said. "And when they don't follow the law, there's consequences.''

And what are the consequences?

"I'll leave that to the courts,'' Ducey responded.

Only thing is, the law appears to not be as the governor believes.

The statute, approved by the Republican controlled legislature and signed by the governor, forbids universities and community colleges from requiring that students be vaccinated against COVID-19 or show proof of such immunization. It also says that the schools cannot place an conditions on attendance or participation in classes or academic activities, including the use of masks, if someone chooses not to be vaccinated.

That parallels a nearly identical executive order issued by Ducey earlier this year.

But what the universities instituted is an across-the-board mask requirement, regardless of vaccination status. And they're not backing down.

Pam Scott, spokeswoman for the University of Arizona, said the policy is "in compliance with the governor's executive order and the law.''

And Jay Throrne, an Arizona State University said school officials reviewed the executive order and the law very carefully, "and our actions are based on that evaluation.''

Ducey isn't buying it. And, more to the point, he says he's prepared to act.

"There are consequences for not following the law,'' the governor said.

But how he intends to impose those consequences to get the universities to bend to his will remains less clear.

"They are through the courts, they are through civil outcomes, and they are through the budget,'' Ducey said.

That possibility of financially penalizing universities that don't conform to what he claims is the law parallels what the governor already is doing with K-12 schools.

Earlier this week he said that only schools that do not require faculty and students to wear masks will get a share of $163 million in federal COVID relief dollars. That is based on legislation, which takes effect Sept. 29, making it illegal for schools to mandate the use of masks.

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On Wednesday, however, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona sent a letter to the governor warning against doing anything that could hamper the safe return of students to schools. And that was backed up hours later by President Biden who told Cardona to use civil rights laws to take actions against governors who prohibit schools from requiring masks.

"We're not going to sit by as governors try to block and intimidate educators who protect our children,'' the president said.

In his letter to Ducey, Cardona pointed out that the schools requiring masks actually are following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control. And he told the governor that any moves to block districts from following that advice "may infringe upon a school district's authority to adopt policies to protect students and educators as they develop their safe return to in-person instruction plans required by federal law.''

Ducey said he wasn't concerned that the state will forfeit its federal COVID relief dollars.

"I'm confident we're on solid ground,'' he said. And the governor used the opportunity to take a swat at the president.

"The letter was weak and pathetic, just like the Biden administration is weak on the border, weak and pathetic on the collapse in Afghanistan, weak and pathetic on their COVID response, and weak and pathetic on their attack on the Phoenix police department and Chief Jeri Williams,'' the governor said. That last reference is to an investigation launched earlier this month by the U.S. Department of Justice into the patterns and practices of the agency of using deadly force and whether t retaliates against people for exercising their First Amendment rights.

And Ducey said they should butt out of how Arizona regulates its schools.

"Why don't they focus on their day jobs, take care of the nation's borders and help Americans leave Afghanistan and leave schools to the states,'' he said. "That's how the Constitution reads.''

Ducey said he's sees nothing wrong with giving extra money only to those schools that agree not to impose mask mandates. He said it's all part of his plan to provide academic help to students, many of whom have not been in regular classes now for more than a year.

"We are going to spend the money in schools that are serious about education and getting kids caught up,'' the governor said.

And he sidestepped a question of whether he believes schools that do require masks are not "serious about education.''

"I'm saying that a parent can make that choice,'' Ducey said. "And I think we ought to trust parents.''

The governor also said he is not alarmed at the increasing number of Arizonans contracting COVID-19.

On Thursday the Department of Health Services reported another 3,546 cases, the highest daily figure since early February, before the vaccine was generally available. Fully a quarter of beds in intensive care units also are occupied by COVID patients, something that last happened on Feb. 23.

"The virus moves in waves,'' Ducey said.

"We see it happen in certain parts of the country,'' he continued. "It's coming to this part of the country as well.''

The governor said people should "use common sense and be responsible,'' adding that the vaccine is available to many -- though not yet to anyone younger than 12.

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