Arizona Sen. Biggs on board with increased child welfare funding, at least to a certain degree - Ahwatukee Foothills News: Valley And State

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Arizona Sen. Biggs on board with increased child welfare funding, at least to a certain degree

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Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2014 7:00 am

Top legislative leaders are telling Gov. Jan Brewer she can have the money she wants for child welfare — but not all at once.

Senate President Andy Biggs said he had “sticker shock” from the $60 million request. He said that cash, coupled with what lawmakers already approved earlier this year, essentially would amount to a nearly 25 percent jump in funding for what used to be Child Protective Services in a single year.

But Biggs told Capitol Media Services he and his colleagues are willing to go along — up to a point.

“I think people will say, ‘If that's what we have to do, that's what we have to do,’” he said.

“We want to clear the backlog” of cases that have not gotten attention from a caseworker in at least 60 days, Biggs said. “We want to get these cases going and resolved more quickly.”

But the Gilbert Republican said there's no desire to simply write out a check and presume the cash will be properly handled.

That's also the assessment of House Speaker Andy Tobin. He wants “benchmarks,” with additional dollars for the new Department of Child Safety and Family Services linked to actual progress.

“You just don't want to throw a lot of this stuff in,” Tobin said.

But Brewer is not interested. Andrew Wilder, her communications chief, said his boss will not accept “piecemeal funding.”

“And that's something we've communicated clearly already to the Legislature,” he said.

Unless a deal can be hammered out, that could put lawmakers into a tricky political position.

Tobin said the clear message from Brewer to this point is that without the additional cash there is no way the agency ever will catch up with the caseload.

“Well, that's not an option for me or most of the members I've talked to,” Tobin said. But he still hopes to convince the governor that some benchmarks are appropriate.

But Wilder said just the request itself is inappropriate.

“Frankly, it demonstrates just how much the Legislature fails to recognize that our child safety system is in crisis,” he said. “This agency is under tremendous stress and pressure due to a crushing workload and not enough resources to do its job right.”

Tobin does not dispute that. But he said some needs are more immediate than others.

For example, the Paulden Republican said he understands the need to refurbish an older building to house the new agency once it is separated from the Department of Economic Security.

He also he said there appears to be a clear need for some immediate hiring to clear up that backlog, estimated at nearly 14,800 earlier this week by Charles Flanagan, who has been tapped to head the new department Brewer wants lawmakers to create and fund. But Tobin he said the agency needs to show it is actually making progress with that cash infusion.

Biggs pointed out that Flanagan, in a press briefing earlier this week, said if he gets the money he can wipe out the backlog by the end of the year.

“You say you can get it done by Jan. 1?” Biggs explained. “OK. So why don't we wait and see if you can perform.”

He said there are several ways the progress of the new agency can be measured.

For example, Biggs said, the agency has said it can hire and train a certain number of people by a certain date. If it meets that goal, it gets more money for the next batch.

“Or you deliver services to this many people ... or you assess a third of your backlog, so, boom, you get more people,” he explained.

Wilder, however, said there's no need for what Biggs and Tobin want.

“There is extensive accountability and transparency built in throughout the governor's reform plan,” he said. “What the Legislature is now seeking in this 11th hour adds absolutely no value at all, only more bureaucracy and paperwork.”

Brewer did throw a bone of sorts to Biggs, with her plan including $250,000 for an outside audit of how the state handles child welfare issues.

That's the exact amount Biggs had sought during the regular session, only to have it vetoed by the governor. Brewer said at the time she wanted to have that issue considered as part of the overhaul of the agency.

Biggs said he's glad there will be an outside look. But he said the governor's legislation is structured so it may come too late to make a meaningful difference in creating the new agency.

“By the time that thing gets done, I'm afraid that we will have built a castle and we may have not done it right the first time,” he said.

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