PHOENIX — Parting ways with her own Republican Party, Gov. Jan Brewer today proposed expanding Arizona's Medicaid program to take advantage of the federal Affordable Care Act.
In her fifth State of the State speech, Brewer said she shares concerns that expanding eligibility to everyone up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level will end up costing the state a lot more. Arizona now covers most people below 100 percent, about $19,000 for a family of three.
While the federal government has agreed to pick up most of the costs, Brewer said she remains convinced that the money will always be there. So she promises to put ``circuit breakers'' into the law to ensure Arizona is not stuck with the bill.
But the governor said it makes no sense not to take the federal dollars. She said it's not like opting out of what's been called "Obama-care" will save federal dollars or go toward debt reduction.
On the other side of the equation, Brewer said not taking the money will continue to mean a high number of uninsured in Arizona, people who show up in emergency rooms to get care but are unable to pay. The governor said those costs amount to a "hidden tax" of $2,000 per family.
Brewer could have a fight on her hands: While a few Democrat lawmakers stood to cheer, most Republicans not only stayed seated but refused to applaud.
Brewer also said today she wants 200 more caseworkers for Child Protective Services.
"Arizona's abused and neglected children need help,'' the governor said.
Brewer said the need is so critical that she wants emergency funding to add 50 caseworkers immediately. And she said the budget proposal she will unveil later this week for the coming fiscal year will include money for another 150.
There are currently about 1,075 caseworkers, supervisors and support staff.
On top of that, Brewer promised to seek additional cash to boost foster care, adoption services and emergency placement of children needing rescue.
"We cannot strike evil from the hearts of those who would harm an innocent child,'' the governor said in her prepared remarks. "But these common sense steps will help at-risk children get the assistance they need before it's too late.''
The governor told legislators that she and they have "tackled hard questions and faced moral challenges'' since she took office almost exactly four years ago.
"My friend, this, too, is a moral issue,'' she said. "Arizona must protect her children.''
On a broader front, Brewer also addressed her views of what Arizona needs to do in the wake of the killings of 20 students and six adults in Connecticut. The priority, she said, is ensuring that children have a safe place to learn.
"The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary was unimaginable,'' the governor said. "Our job now is to take common sense steps that lessen the likelihood of a similar tragedy in Arizona, while resisting the urge to turn a school into a fortress.''
As expected, Brewer promised to ask lawmakers for more money to help hire school resource officers, sworn police officers specially assigned to public schools.
Funding for those officers was cut in half in prior years, with Brewer's concurrence, as part of the state's budget-balancing plan. The remaining $8 million in the program cannot be touched because it is part of voter-approved funding.
Brewer said the program has "a track record of success'' and needs to be expanded. She did not, however, provide a figure.
"Let's come together for the safety of our schools, allowing our teachers and children to focus on what's most important: learning,'' the governor said.
House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, already is asking for an extra $17 million for the program.
There is nothing in the governor's plan about asking lawmakers for any new restrictions on weapons. But the governor also is on record as opposing any expansion of where guns can now be legally carried, having vetoed measures to permit them in public buildings and the rights-of-way through college and university campuses.
Brewer also vowed to seek more money for public education overall.
"Whatever your point of view, we should all agree that it's time we start funding the academic results we want to see,'' she said. But Brewer's plan has a twist.
Under current law, schools essentially are funded on a per-capita basis: Each student translates into a set amount of state aid. There are add-ons for special needs, like learning disabilities and limited English proficiency.
Brewer said she's not suggesting scrapping that. But she wants to provide additional dollars -- and not on a per-student basis.
"What I am proposing is the nation's first comprehensive performance funding plan for our districts and charter schools,'' the governor said. "This plan will reward schools that earn high marks or see real improvement in performance.''
Brewer provided no details other than to say what she has in mind will augment existing funding "with an innovative approach to promoting school performance while maintaining local control.''
Separately, Brewer also held out an olive branch of sorts to the Obama administration with whom she has fought -- and criticized -- almost incessantly over the issue of illegal immigration: She promised to work for immigration reform.
But Brewer's cooperation is conditional on first having the border secured.
She said the record shows that can be done, citing the improvements made in the Yuma sector -- from the western edge of Pima County into the Imperial sand dunes of California -- where illegal border crossings have been slowed to a trickle.
"The steep decline in illegal crossings is proof that our border can be secured when the federal government employs the right mix of fencing, manpower and technology,'' the governor said. Brewer said she now wants the president to "finish the job'' by securing the Tucson sector which covers the rest of Arizona's southern border.
"Fulfill your promise to the American people, and I'll make good on mine,'' she said.
On a related front, Brewer said she was issuing an executive order setting up a task force to fight human trafficking.
"This is truly a crime against humanity, a modern-day slavery in which men, women and children are sold into force labor or prostitution,'' the governor said. She also credited Cindy McCain, wife of Sen. John McCain, with being "a leading voice'' on that issue.
Brewer also made a push for simplifying sales taxes, saying that the current system where local communities can enact their own tax codes can "make it difficult for businesses to simply pay what they owe.''
And the governor also established a new Natural Resources Review Council to provide input on how to best use the state's resources located on federal land. That includes the national forests, where there has been criticism of federal logging policies that some have said has led to the devastating fires of the last few years.
Brewer last year vetoed legislation which would have required the state to demand the federal government turn over its holdings to the state. While describing herself in that veto message as a "staunch advocate'' for state sovereignty, "we still must be mindful and respectful of our federal system.''
The council she is forming is instead designed to provide input into what the federal government does with the lands.