For the first time in its three-year history, the First Things First organization is running TV ads promoting what it does.
But the executive director of the state agency said the decision to spend more than $600,000 in tax dollars for the commercials has nothing to do with the fact that voters will decide in November whether to keep the program alive. Rhiann Allvin said state law makes "public information about the importance of early childhood development and health'' one of the goals for the Arizona Early Childhood Development and Health Board, the formal name for the state agency.
And the timing? Allvin said it is unrelated to the fact that lawmakers voted earlier this year to put the existence of First Things Vote on the ballot.
"I, obviously, had no control over the legislators' choices to put us on the ballot,'' she said. "There is nothing political about this public awareness campaign.''
The 30-second commercial, featuring images of children, starts out, "They raise their hands because someone held theirs.'' It says children smile because someone was happy to help and children say "I can'' because someone said they could.
"Good things are happening in Arizona with First Things First,'' the ad continues.
"First Things First helps Arizona's youngest kids receive the quality early education, healthcare and family support,'' it goes on. "They need to be ready for kindergarten, elementary school and beyond. Help prepare our kids and Arizona for success.
And it ends with a slide with the words "First Things First'' and the address of its web site.
The current "buy'' for the commercial has it running this month and next at a cost of $489,000. That's on top of the $143,000 First Things First paid to a public relations firm to put it together.
Voters approved creating First Things First in 2006 with the goal of promoting early childhood development and education. It is funded by an 80-cent-a-pack tax on cigarettes.
Proceeds go to the childhood board and are funneled back to programs in local communities through 31 regional partnership councils. The levy generated about $135 million in the just-completed fiscal year.
Earlier this year, state lawmakers, looking to balance the budget, decided that the money would be better spent elsewhere.
Unable to eliminate the program themselves because of the 2006 vote, they put the question of abolishing it on the ballot as Proposition 302.
If approved, it would be left to legislators to decide how to spend the money.
Allvin acknowledged that goal of public education was part of the original 2006 law.
"In my opinion ... we should have been doing this two years ago,'' said Allvin, who was hired in February.
She said the regional councils actually had built money into their budgets for a PR campaign "long ago.'' But Allvin said a decision was made to coordinate the efforts statewide rather than having each region come up with its own plans.
Allvin said the planning goes back to April 2009 but some internal staff changes kept anything from going on the air until now.
She agreed that nothing in the commercials specifically tells people how to become better parents. But Allvin said that wasn't the intent.
"The point of the TV and the billboards and everything is to drive people to ReadyAZkids.com which is all factual information about what they can do to help kids,'' Allvin said.
Allvin also pointed out that the language of Proposition 302 makes no mention of "First Things First,'' instead using the formal name of the board. That, she argued, proves the TV campaign touting the "good things'' that First Things First is doing is unrelated to the ballot measure.
But what's also true is that the publicity campaign against Proposition 302, which already has collected more than $121,000, is labeled "Save First Things First.''
And virtually all the statements in opposition to Proposition 302 talk about the program as First Things First.
Those statements, are going out in the ballot brochure being mailed by the state to the home of every registered voter. And most of them were paid for not by the authors but by the anti-302 campaign.
Script of commercial:
They raise their hands because someone held theirs. They smile because someone was happy to help. They say I can because someone said they could.
Good things are happening in Arizona with First Things First. First Things First helps Arizona's youngest kids receive the quality early education, healthcare and family support they need to be ready for kindergarten, elementary school and beyond. Help prepare our kids and Arizona for success.