PHOENIX – Facing pressure by community groups and criticism from legislative Democrats, Gov. Jan Brewer finally agreed late Monday to have a state agency shuffle around $650,000 in its budget to cover welfare payments for 3,200 needy families – but only through the end of the month.
The move comes as Arizona, one of only 11 states to use only federal dollars for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, was, until now, the only one of those states to not find replacement cash in its own resources. And it comes on the heels of a letter to Brewer Monday from the Basic Needs Coalition seeking to prod her into action.
“If a major Arizona employer defaulted on its payroll to its employees with short or no notice as the Department of Economic Security did with these poor and vulnerable families and their children, the community would be outraged and challenge that employer to meet their legal and moral obligations,” wrote Timothy Schmaltz, coordinator of the Protecting Arizona's Family Coalition.
House and Senate Democrats had scheduled a press conference for this morning to pressure the governor to find ways to restore funds. Rep. Debbie McCune Davis, D-Phoenix, said, until late Monday, officials from the Department of Economic Security insisted there was no way for them to help.
The governor's office provided no explanation for the sudden shift.
At issue is temporary cash assistance for needy families. According to the governor's office, there are about 16,500 families in Arizona in the program, including 27,545 children.
The Department of Economic Security said about 13,300 families already had gotten their October checks when the federal government shut down and Arizona's account ran out of cash.
Originally, DES said that left about 5,200 families owed an average of $207 a month. By late Monday, that figure was revised to 3,200, though no one from either the agency or the governor's office would provide an explanation.
The $650,000 should cover their payments this month, though DES would provide no details of where they were finding the dollars and what else would not be funded. Whatever the source, McCune Davis said the move was overdue.
“It was embarrassing for Arizona to be the only state in the nation that wasn't stepping in with state dollars to cover the shortfall,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Leah Landrum Taylor pointed out the federal government had assured states all they would be repaid.
But the governor, in a prepared statement, made no promises beyond Oct. 31 when all the federal TANF funds – and the food stamp dollars – run out.
Landrum Taylor said she will try to convince Brewer to prepare bipartisan legislation to be ready for a special legislative session if there is no budget deal by the end of the month. Her goal is to pave the way for tapping the state's $450 million “rainy day” fund if it comes to that.
“The rainy day fund is used for emergencies, it's used for crisis,” she said. “If this is not crisis, I don't know what is.”
She said more than just missing federal TANF funds are at stake.
One issue is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, less formally known as food stamps. While recipients have received their October allocation, there are no federal dollars for November.
There also is a threat to the unemployment insurance program. While the benefits are funded by a tax on Arizona employers, the money for eligibility screening and processing the checks comes from Washington.
“These are Arizona people,” McCune Davis said. “These are our responsibility.”
In her prepared statement – the governor's office did not return repeated phone calls – Brewer blamed the problem on the “failure of leadership in Washington.”
But she took a particular slap at the president for failing to negotiate with congressional Republicans, and instead insisting on getting an entire funding plan.
Brewer, however, made no mention that she has used similar tactics with the Legislature as recently as this year.
In May, the governor told state legislators she would veto anything they sent her unless she first got a complete state budget, including her pet Medicaid expansion plan. And when lawmakers ignored her threat, she did just that, vetoing five of their measures.
“It is disappointing I must demonstrate the moratorium was not an idle threat,” Brewer said in each of her veto messages.