By: Luige del Puerto
A senior Republican legislator wants to use tobacco-tax dollars to help fund the embattled Child Protective Services, which was recently rocked by revelations that it ignored more than 6,000 cases of abuse and neglect over several years.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, is wading into a big fight. He is not proposing a new revenue source, but is instead targeting the funds of the Arizona Early Childhood Development and Health Board, also known as First Things First.
First Things First, which gets its revenues from a tobacco tax, provides for an array of services for children up to the age of five.
Kavanagh said he is putting together a ballot proposal to redirect a quarter of the agency’s annual spending to CPS. That comes out to roughly $45 million annually, he said.
“What I have in mind is that 25 cents of every First Things First dollar expended in any given year would go to help children under CPS supervision, their foster families or their regular families for abuse prevention and family support, and education programs,” he told the ~Arizona Capitol Times~, adding the agency has “a lot of money” and helping CPS is the type of service it should provide.
The Republican said the referral would include a non-supplanting clause to ensure that the state doesn’t abdicate its financial obligations to the agency tasked with protecting the state’s most vulnerable residents.
It remains to be seen if the proposal would get any traction. If it did, it won’t be the first time that lawmakers attempted to take money from the early childhood board.
The last time legislators tried to sweep funds from the agency, they lost in court.
Voters also rejected lawmakers’ attempt to dismantle the program in 2010, when the public rejected a referral targeting the Arizona Early Childhood Development and Health Board by a 70-30 margin.
The agency has since been working to bridge differences with lawmakers. Since the loss at the ballot box in 2010, legislators have refrained from seeking to either dismantle the childhood board or sweep its revenues.
Last year, a House proposal to repeal the agency didn’t get a committee hearing.
Sam Leyvas, the interim executive director of First Things First, said his group’s board will likely balk at attempts to redirect the agency’s revenues.
“At some point, you really just have to support the will of the voters,” he said, referring to the agency’s creation of First Things First in 2006 and the public’s affirmation of that decision in 2010.
Leyvas said the childhood board wasn’t created by voters to prevent abuse or neglect, which he maintained is the core responsibility of the state. The goal instead is to build a solid safety net system.
That doesn’t mean the agency hasn’t spent on programs to help vulnerable families, he said.
More than 30 percent of its annual expenditure goes to child care scholarships, which coincided with the years the state slashed and later eliminated all of its child care appropriation. Another 20 percent is earmarked for family support strategies, such as home visits, he said.
“So we’ve really tried to be good partners with DES and with the state, particularly when the general fund appropriation went away for child care subsidy,” he said. He added the board and DES recently renewed an agreement to allow the state to use the childhood dollars as leverage in drawing down federal dollars.
If not for that partnership, Arizona would have lost up to $170 million in federal child care subsidies over the past five years, he said.
The silver lining in Kavanagh’s proposal might be that the legislator sees the good in reinvesting in prevention and community support programs, Leyvas said.
“I’m not just sure if this is the best approach about doing that, mainly because what you’re simply doing is moving money away from one program that is supporting families into CPS, and you’re really not seeing any new additional monies into these sorts of programs,” he said.