Arizona Senate OKs $63M in child agency cash

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By Mike Gertzman By Mike Gertzman

PHOENIX (AP) -- The Arizona Senate on Wednesday gave initial approval to Gov. Jan Brewer's plan to overhaul the state's child welfare agency and deal with a massive backlog of cases.

It also added spending for the agency that Brewer didn't initially want. The extra $3 million for prevention services that include child care subsidies, stipends for grandparents caring for their grandchildren and out-of-home care was championed by Democrats, who argue that spending on preventative programs saves money by keeping children from being neglected.

"When it comes down to child safety, prevention is a really huge, huge area of need," said Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, especially when about 80 percent of child-welfare cases stem from neglect.

The Republican-controlled Senate approved the extra spending on a 14-13 vote.

Committees in the House also unanimously approved the bills overhauling the agency, setting the stage for final votes in both chambers on Thursday.

The added funding comes on top of $60 million that Brewer requested to help turn around the troubled agency. Brewer spokesman Andrew Wilder said the governor was fine with the extra spending.

"We are not opposed to them deciding to add additional dollars in support of prevention because the fiscally conservative approach to these challenging child safety issues is to spend more on prevention on the front end so the state is paying less on foster care and congregate care on the back end," Wilder said in an email.

But conservative Republicans in the Senate said they were incensed by the last-minute additions, especially because Brewer refused to agree to other changes they wanted, including a doling out of the new money to ensure the agency was making progress in hiring and eliminating a backlog of more than 15,000 cases.

"I think that's disingenuous, and it's not the proper way to do things," Senate President Andy Biggs said during a Republican caucus meeting before the formal vote. "If she wanted stuff in there, she could have put this in weeks ago."

Senators turned back the effort to require the new Department of Child Safety to report back to the Legislature before getting some of the extra funding.

Brewer had threatened to veto the bill if that was put in, but Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, said it was needed.

"This puts some accountability into this massive spending bill," Ward said. "It allows the money to be given to the department ... but its puts a little bit of accountability, just a tiny bit of accountability into this bill."

Sen. Don Shooter, R-Phoenix, opposed the measure, primarily because of a veto threat. "As a practical matter the governor has threatened to veto the bill, and I don't want to be here next week," he said.

The appropriations and policy bills that passed on a voice vote Wednesday will create and fund a new Department of Child Safety to replace the old Child Protective Services department.

Brewer called the Legislature into a special session this week to address the overhaul.

Biggs predicted the two bills would pass the Senate on Thursday.

Speaker Andy Tobin said he expects the House to adopt the bills unanimously, especially after he and Biggs added reporting requirements for the new agency. Those requirements include reports to the Legislature on the hiring of newly authorized child safety workers and elimination of a backlog that exceeds 15,000 cases.

"I haven't heard of a no yet on the process," Tobin said. "I think this is turning the light switch on to a new agency, and I think the members are more than willing to say: `Hey, let's move this process down the road.' "

The Republican governor proposed the overhaul after revelations late last year that more than 6,500 abuse and neglect reports were closed without investigation by the old Child Protective Services department.

Brewer set up a temporary department in January under Flanagan, the former head of the state's juvenile corrections department. The Legislature gave her about $59 million to help remake the agency in the upcoming budget

The additional $60 million the governor wants brings total agency funding to $827 million in the budget year that begins July 1. That's up from $626 million two years ago. The plan adds extra child welfare and criminal investigators and creates bonuses for new caseworkers who stay past 18 and 36 months in an effort to reduce turnover.

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