Gov. Janet Napolitano launched her second term Monday by pledging to provide health insurance for low-income children while legislative leaders waited to hear one key detail: how much it will cost.
Napolitano said in her annual State of the State address that she wants to make sure reasonable health care insurance is available to children under the age of 19 and whose families make less than $60,000 a year.
“We owe it to our children to do better — we owe it to their future,” she told lawmakers and other dignitaries who packed the House floor at the Capitol to kick off the 2007 legislative session.
Napolitano said only fi ve other states have a higher rate of children without health insurance. To fix that, she’s proposing to expand coverage through Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System and the KidsCare program, which insures about 58,000 children in Arizona through federal and state subsidies.
AHCCCS provides free care for all families whose income falls below the federal poverty level — $20,000 a year for a family of four. KidsCare offers free coverage for all children whose parents earn less than twice the federal poverty level.
In addition, Napolitano asked the Legislature to repeal a law prohibiting state outreach programs to families that could qualify for AHCCCS or KidsCare.
“We have an estimated 100,000 children who are eligible for AHCCCS or KidsCare, but have never been signed up because their parents simply don’t know about it,” she said. “I call on you to repeal the gag rule. Let teachers talk to parents, so that our children get the health care they deserve.”
Expanding health care coverage was part of a legislative agenda that focused on revamping Arizona schools, building more roads and modernizing the economy to bring more high-tech and high-paying jobs to the state.
Leaders from both the Senate and the House agreed that growth and education were among the top priorities this year. But they will wait until Napolitano releases the details of her budget proposal later this week to see how she intends to pay for her plans.
“As always, the devil will be in the details,” said House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix. “We’ve got quite an extensive shopping list, but we just don’t know how we’re going to pay for it.”
Likewise, Senate President Tim Bee said he was unsure whether the state would have enough money to expand or create any new programs.
Republican lawmakers generally supported Napolitano’s proposals, but party leaders were critical of what did not rank highly on her agenda: illegal immigration.
Napolitano mentioned illegal immigration at the end of her speech, which lasted nearly 45 minutes.
Her proposals on immigration issues included cracking down on vehicle theft along the border and spending millions of federal dollars to equip the region with high-tech equipment such as radar systems.
Bee and Weiers said there would be a meaningful employer sanctions bill for businesses that knowingly hire illegal workers. Illegal immigration and employer sanctions were a major sticking point between Napolitano and the GOP-led Legislature last year.
Sen. Karen Johnson, RMesa, also criticized the governor’s plan to expand health care coverage to children.
“When I heard that I thought to myself ‘Oh my gosh,’” she said. “I don’t think that government can be everything for everybody.”
Other plans rolled out by the governor included details about her One Arizona Education Initiative that calls for adding more math and science classes to school curriculum.
For example, Arizona requires two years of math in high school, but Napolitano wants students to take four years before graduating.
Continuing on gains made last year in the area of teacher salaries, the governor plans to ask for another pay bump. This year, she wants to increase the starting salaries for teachers to $33,000. That’s up from last year when Napolitano pushed through legislation that raised salaries for first-year teachers to $30,000 a year.
“Those incentives should attract teachers who are sharp and in the areas we expect them to teach,” she said. Napolitano’s education plan also calls for raising the dropout age from 16 to 18 years old.
Napolitano said her budget proposal will include plans to handle the state’s expected population growth — in particular, she wants to address what she calls the “time tax” on drivers stuck in traffic. Her budget, expected to be released later this week, will put more money toward the Phoenix biomedical campus, which includes the new branch of the University of Arizona College of Medicine.
She also wants to pressure the Legislature to change a law that restricts transportation bonds to 20 years. Napolitano said stretching the payback on those bonds to 30 years or more would free up nearly $400,000 to accelerate highway construction.
Senate Majority Leader Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, said he will consider the plan. But it will compete with other GOP-backed bills, including a proposal to invest $450 million from the state’s so-called “Rainy Day Fund” to speed up freeway and road construction.
Verschoor, the former chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, has proposed putting $200 million into the Statewide Transportation Acceleration Needs account to spur construction. By law, 60 percent of that money must be spent in Maricopa County.
Rep. William Konopnicki, R-Safford, thinks the governor’s plan will be a hard sell to Republicans because it extends loans for an additional 10 years.
Both the governor and Republicans linked highway construction and other infrastructure needs to maintaining a healthy economy.
And to bring high-tech and higher-paying jobs to the state, Napolitano wants to “cultivate and stimulate new technologies, new markets, and new approaches to the way we will grow and change.”
That includes modernizing the State Department of Commerce to attract more jobs and increasing foreign investment in Arizona by attracting non-U.S.-based companies to locate and expand here.
Darcy Olsen, president of the conservative Goldwater Institute, said the governor should be asking for tax cuts to attract high-tech companies.
“This governor proposes an A-to-Z list for more government when she needs to get out of the way of business,” Olsen said.
Rep. Jack Brown, the assistant minority leader, was the lone Democrat to criticize the governor’s speech.
“It was too long,” said Brown of St. Johns, who was first elected to the state Legislature in 1963.
Napolitano also announced several executive orders — not dependent on legislative approval — to crack down on abuse and neglect in long-term care facilities and to increase incentives for first-time home buyers in rural areas.