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. Arizona Public Radio's Howard Fischer reports.
Rep. John Kavanagh said the perennial backlog of cases at Child Protective Services, plus the discovery of 6,500 complaints that were never investigated, will require more tax dollars. But, Kavanagh said there need to be more services to foster families. And, he thinks the cash for that can come from an 80-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes voters approved in 2006. That now funds a program known as First Things First, which finances everything from pre-kindergarten programs to subsidized child care.
“It’s an awful lot of taxpayer dollars going to First Things First,” Kavanaugh said. “And we’re talking about very high, crying-need, high-risk children.”
Kavanagh’s plan would take a quarter of the funds raised, about $33 million a year. Sam Leyvas, the group’s interim director, 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,” Leyvas said.
But, Leyvas said First Things First will fight any effort to strip away some of its funds, saying that will only hurt many of the same people Kavanagh says he is trying to help.
“In a lot of ways, I think, the proposal itself is a little bit of robbing Peter to pay Paul. First Things First already contributes in a lot of ways resources for vulnerable families and children,” Leyvas said.
Leyvas said his organization spends more than 30 percent of its money on subsidies for about 14,000 low-income families to help them afford child care. And, Leyvas said much of that became necessary when the state itself cut back on its own child care subsidies, creating a waiting list of more than 6,700 youngsters.
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 includes a specific emphasis on 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.
Whatever the money involved, Kavanagh needs more than just the consent of his colleagues to divert the cash. Because the tobacco tax was approved at the ballot box, any alteration — including how the money is divided up — would need to be ratified by voters in November. Kavanagh, however, said he is optimistic.
“I think the voters won’t have the problem diverting it. It’s for a similar cause. But we’re simply going to the most vulnerable of the vulnerables,” Kavanagh said.
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 this is different — and not just because the move would take only a quarter of the funds. He said the proceeds would be guaranteed to go for children, rather than simply helping lawmakers balance the books.
“And by the way, there’ll be a no-supplanting clause in here,” Kavanagh said. “So they’re not going to be able to claim that we’re just using their money to replace ours.”
Hearings on the proposal will start after the legislature convenes later this month.