Republican senators lashed out Tuesday at the Department of Economic Security, saying the agency is purposely cutting high-profile programs for political purposes.
The legislators noted that, in enacting a revised budget for the coming year, each agency was given an opportunity to decide, in general, where to slash spending. In the case of DES, officials were told to find nearly $61.7 million anywhere in the budget, plus cut employee expenses another $5.1 million.
The result was the agency producing a laundry list of services late last week that would be affected, ranging from subsidies for low-income parents of 20,000 children and eliminating temporary cash assistance for more than 38,000 to reducing homeless shelter capacity by 1,100 individuals and eliminating assisted living services for about 450 individuals age 60 and older.
And that list got longer on Tuesday. DES said it was:
Reducing the subsidy paid to foster parents;
Cutting funding for domestic violence shelters;
Eliminating services for 5,000 developmentally disabled children and adults where family income is too much to qualify for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System.
All that had GOP senators fuming.
"We've seen over and over ... what's put out (for cuts) are the ones that a the most draconian, the ones that affect the most people," state Sen. Barbara Leff, R-Paradise Valley, complained.
Senate Majority Whip Pam Gorman, R-Anthem, called it "a political stunt," saying the agency was "getting rid of the things that everybody would consider last."
Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City, agreed.
"They're cutting the things they think will gin up support for their agency in the public rather than making the smart or the wise cut," he said.
DES spokeswoman Liz Barker denied that cuts were being made with an eye on publicity.
She said more than 77 percent of the agency's budget goes to providing services, whether in direct payments to those who are eligible or paying contractors to provide services like child care. And Barker said another 15 percent is to pay the staffers who provide services like case managers and those who screen applicants for eligibility.
"Less than 8 percent is administration and operations staff," she said. "Given the magnitude of the reduction and the fact that the majority of our budget is spent on direct services to our customers, it would have been impossible for us to achieve the required reduction without a significant impact to the children, adults and families we serve."
Gould, however, wasn't buying it.
"We've never really gone through the state with a fine-toothed comb and a sharp pencil," he said.
Leff said it may have been a mistake to leave the decisions of what to cut to each agency. She said if further funding reductions are necessary, it might be better for lawmakers themselves to decide what stays and what goes, if for no other reason than it won't come as a surprise when agencies come up with their own lists.
Sen. Jack Harper, R-Surprise, also questioned the DES decision to require most employees to take at least nine days off without pay between now and June 30.
He said that does keep people employed and protects their benefits like state-subsidized health insurance. But Harper said it might have made more sense to actually get rid of some workers.
"The real problem that the state has, besides the loss of revenues from the economic downturn, was that (former) Gov. Napolitano continued to hire people that we cannot afford," Harper said.
DES is headed by Linda Blessing, whom Gov. Jan Brewer named as interim director following the resignation of Tracy Wareing who had been Napolitano's choice. But Gould said the fact that a Brewer appointee is in charge does not make the decisions any less political.
"Sometimes people are empire builders," Gould said. "Regardless of what party that particular individual is from or who appointed her, it seems to happen all over the place."
Repeated requests to Brewer's press aide for comment were not returned.