John McComish
Senate Majority Leader John McComish.  [Howard Fischer/Capitol Media Services]

The fate of a $9.2 billion state budget could depend on lawmakers crafting a commitment for future child-welfare funding that does not actually commit them to doing anything.

The Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday began paring down the version of a new spending plan approved last week by the House. On a party-line vote, they removed about $7.4 million, much of that in House-approved plans to expand the kinds of services available to patients in the state's Medicaid program.

But the committee sidestepped the hot-button issue of whether to promise to come up with more when the state finally creates a new Department of Child Safety and Family Services. That fight is expected to play out today on the Senate floor. There is little difference now between the House and Senate versions of the budget for child welfare. Both provide 242 new caseworkers to the agency along with cash for more investigators and attorneys.

Only thing is, there are plans to move child welfare entirely out of the Department of Economic Security and create a freestanding state agency.

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, said the committee studying how to do that has yet to issue its report of what's needed, but she presumes that more cash will be needed to do the job right.

She inserted language into the House version of the budget say the Legislature will revisit the budget once that report is out, perhaps in a month, and “provide resources to meet these needs.”

There is no dollar figure attached to that, and Brophy McGee said it mainly serves as a prod to remind her colleagues later this year of this promise.

But that verbiage is causing heartburn. Sen. Chester Crandell, R-Heber, said he is unwilling to sign what he calls a “blank check.”

“In my opinion – and I may be wrong – if you put it in there, the way it was written it actually mandates we have to come back and fund it,” he said. “And I'm not sure that's good legislation.”

Senate Majority Leader John McComish, R-Phoenix, said he and his colleagues are willing to provide Brophy McGee with some sort of commitment – as long as there's no requirement for lawmakers to absolutely promise to come up with the dollars. He said there will be language offered on the Senate floor today that will provide “some softening, if you will, of that language so that it wouldn't read as an absolute, in blood commitment.”

“I think we might see language that's more 'intent' language as opposed to ‘absolute commitment’ language,” McComish said. “To give an absolute commitment on numbers that we haven't seen yet will be very difficult for members of the Senate.”

Other fights remain.

One involves the fact the state provides more money per student for Joint Technological Education Districts – essentially a combination of high school and tech training – in rural areas. The House sought to equalize that, the Senate refused.

There also is the issue of whether the state should continue providing extra funds to charter schools formed by public school districts.

Senators did remove language inserted into the spending plan by Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, to add $900,000 to what the state is paying Geo Group to house inmates in its private prison.

Kavanagh said the company has been giving the financially strapped state a break for years and now deserves more. But the Department of Corrections, which contracts with private firms for needed beds, did not ask for the money.

McComish said it's wrong to insert something like this into the budget without legislative hearings.

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