PHOENIX — State senators gave preliminary approval Wednesday to creating a new Department of Child Safety and providing $63 million in new funding to get it started.
The voice vote came over the objections of Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, who questioned why lawmakers were giving the new agency all of the new money upfront without any requirement to prove that it’s actually being properly spent.
She said, for example, that funds to hire new caseworkers to both deal with the backlog of abuse and neglect complaints and stay current with new reports should be released in stages as those employees are brought on board.
But that proposal failed amid bipartisan opposition, with Sen. Don Shooter, R-Yuma, invoking the name of Gov. Jan Brewer who had asked the package be approved as introduced.
“As a practical matter, the governor has threatened to veto the bill,” he warned. “I don’t want to be here next week.”
But Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said there’s no reason for that threat.
He said the agency will start the new fiscal year with more than $760 million being transferred from the Department of Economic Security, where the old Child Protective Services has been housed. With funding already approved just last month, coupled with the new dollars in this plan, that brings the agency’s budget up above $830 million.
Biggs said all he and Ward want to do is hold back about $12 million until October, three months into the new budget year, to ensure that the new agency hires the caseworkers it has promised. And release of those funds would also depend on Charles Flanagan, chosen by Brewer to head the new agency, coming up with a plan to wipe out the backlog of more than 14,700 existing cases which have remained untouched for at least 60 days.
“What it does is it provides a measure of transparency and accountability, which the director says he supports,” Biggs argued. And he said Flanagan has promised he would meet certain goals, like having all those new employees hired by October.
“But apparently he’s not so confident that he can accomplish them,” Biggs chided.
But while Ward’s amendment was defeated because changes to the plan would displease the governor, that did not apply across the board: On a bipartisan vote, a majority of senators agreed to add another $3 million to the plan, money not included in Brewer’s proposal.
A third of that would be in extra dollars for subsidized child care for low-income working parents, on top of $4 million already in the package. There’s also another $1 million in aid for grandparents who agree to take children that the DCS has removed from their homes, and an equal amount for support services for families.
Gubernatorial spokesman Andrew Wilder said his boss is OK with that change, even though it wasn’t part of the deal.
“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,” he said.
A final Senate vote is set for today, with the package then set for House action.
The legislation is the culmination of years of frustration with what had been Child Protective Services and questions of how effective it has been at preventing and dealing with cases of abuse and neglect.
What finally brought the issue to a head was the discovery last year that 6,500 complaints to the agency had gone uninvestigated — and might well have stayed uncovered. That led to questions of whether CPS could be properly watched as a small part of the much larger Department of Economic Security.
This legislation not only creates a Cabinet-level agency but also adds new provisions for both internal and external oversight.