A veteran state lawmaker wants voters to siphon cash away from a program for early childhood development to instead help fund services for foster children and the families that care for them.
Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, said its clear additional money is to ensure that laws against child abuse and neglect are being enforced.
Child Protective Services has been running a backlog of 10,000 cases listed as inactive, meaning there has been no action on them in at least two months. That is on top of the more than 6,500 complaints that were recently discovered to have been entirely ignored and now are finally being investigated.
All that, said Kavanagh, will have to come from general tax revenues.
He said there are other dollars available for foster care families: Revenues from an 80-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes voters approved in 2006. He said some of the funds in the program known as First Things First, which now finance everything from pre-kindergarten programs to subsidized child care, might be better spent on families with more immediate needs.
The move will get a fight from the organization.
“I think we're already part of the solution,” said Sam Leyvas, the group's interim director. He said shifting funds to Kavanagh's priorities would mean less money for other services to families in need.
Kavanagh needs to do more than convince the Republican-controlled Legislature to make the shift. Because First Things First was adopted by voters, it can be altered only with their consent.
That sets the stage for a ballot fight in November.
But the record is not on Kavanagh's side — a 2010 legislative bid to take all of the tobacco tax proceeds to balance the budget was soundly trounced, with fewer than one-third of those casting ballots in support.
Kavanagh said he believes the outcome this year could be different. First, he wants just 25 percent of what First Things First collects. Leyvas said that amounts to about $33 million a year at current levels of tobacco use.
Second, Kavanagh said the dollars would be added to what the Legislature already spends on Child Protective Services and the programs it has for families. The 2010 effort, by contrast, simply sought to seize all of the organization's funds to simply balance the state budget.
The 2006 vote for the cigarette tax hike came amid claims that Arizona needed to do more to address early childhood education and health needs for children up to age 5. The program included an emphasis to serve children from lower-income families to close the achievement gap.
Grants are made to local organizations.
When initially approved, the levy generated as much as $170 million a year. Leyvas said that anti-smoking efforts — including the tax itself — have dropped that to $132 million.
“That's an awful lot of taxpayer dollars that are going to First Things First,” said Kavanagh.
“We're talking about very high-need, high-risk children,” he continued.
Kavanagh said the funds are going for a “similar cause” but “the most vulnerable of the vulnerables.”
Leyvas said he sympathizes with what Kavanagh is trying to do.
“The implicit acknowledgement from Mr. Kavanagh in a proposal like this is that the state really needs to think seriously about restoring some of the disinvestments that have occurred in prevention, early intervention, and intervention for vulnerable families,” he said. “That's the upside.”
But he said that the programs financed by First Things First already address some of that.
“And so, in a lot of ways, I think the proposal itself is a little bit of robbing Peter to pay Paul,” Leyvas said.
For example, he said the organization spends more than 30 percent of its money on subsidies to low-income families to help them afford child care.
“That equates to about 14,000 who wouldn't have otherwise had access to places like child care and preschool,” Leyvas said. He said much of that became necessary when the state itself cut back on its own child care subsidies, creating waiting lists.
The most recent figures from the Department of Economic Security show that while subsidies are being provided to nearly 23,000 children in more than 12,000 families, there are still more than 6,700 youngsters on the waiting list. DES spokeswoman Tasya Peterson said there is no set amount of time an eligible family has to wait, with any new available openings going to those with the lowest income levels.
Leyvas also argued that cutbacks in First Things First funding would actually exacerbate the problems at Child Protective Services.
“We're the front lines before families and children end up in vulnerable places in cases of neglect, in cases of abuse,” he said. “You pull the finger from the proverbial dike and what happens is ... you may even make it worse.”