State lawmakers agreed Thursday to use about $18 million in federal stimulus funds to ensure that the parents of 15,000 youngsters will get state help next week with child care expenses. The 23-4 vote by the Senate and 50-6 House vote comes just days before the Department of Economic Security was set to cancel the subsidized child care for people who make between 110 and 165 percent of the federal poverty level.
State lawmakers agreed Thursday to use about $18 million in federal stimulus funds to ensure that the parents of 15,000 youngsters will get state help next week with child care expenses.
The 23-4 vote by the Senate and 50-6 House vote comes just days before the Department of Economic Security was set to cancel the subsidized child care for people who make between 110 and 165 percent of the federal poverty level. DES had sent letters to those families saying the aid would disappear on Saturday because of the cuts to the state budget made by legislators.
But the victory for those families — making between $20,140 and $30,230 for a family of three — is likely only temporary.
Senate President Bob Burns, R-Peoria, pointed out that the extra federal stimulus dollars, specifically earmarked for child care, run out sometime next year. And he said that, given the state’s finances, it is unlikely that lawmakers will ask taxpayers to once again pick up the cost.
In fact, Burns said DES was instructed to tell those whose subsidies are being continued not to count on the state help long term and to start arranging some alternative child care.
The legislation, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed Thursday, makes several other alterations in the current budget, including restoring some cuts made in funding for graduate medical education and in aid to hospitals.
Lawmakers did agree to remove a controversial provision which would have reduced state aid to cities immediately by $17 million to help keep the budget in balance. That occurred after lobbyists for cities said they were counting on the money and that such a cut would result in laying off police officers and firefighters.
That claim angered Sen. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa.
“I know better than that,” he said, saying city officials were purposely being alarmist. “I can tell you parks ought to close before you lay off police and fire.”
But the main purpose behind the measure was to keep child care affordable for the families of those making too much to qualify for other programs. Proponents argued that the subsidies are necessary to ensure that parents, particularly single parents, do not have to quit their jobs because they cannot afford to leave their children with someone else.
The move, though, came with grumbling from some Republicans who accused the governor, who asked lawmakers for the change, of using unfair political tactics to get her way.
“I don’t respond well to threats, I don’t respond well to blackmail,” said Sen. Ron Gould, R-Lake Havasu City. “And I don’t respond well to people waving letters that are going to my constituents if I don’t vote a particular way.”
That letter was the one DES was preparing to send out last week telling people that their subsidized child care was to be cut effective this coming Saturday. Gould said gubernatorial lobbyist Richard Bark was the one who waved the letter in his face, telling him that failure to agree to use the stimulus funds would result in the service cuts.
Senate Majority Whip Pam Gorman, R-Anthem, stopped short of calling it blackmail.
“I can tell you that it was literally waved in our faces, and told that if you don’t do this, tomorrow we will send this out to 10,000 families,” she told Capitol Media Services. “You can call that what you will.”
Gubernatorial press aide Paul Senseman said there was no effort to blackmail lawmakers into voting for the plan. He pointed out that DES sent the letter a week ago — before Thursday’s vote — to notify parents of what the agency was planning so as not to catch them unaware.
The letter, though, directs those affected where to direct their ire if the subsidies do not return.
“Gov. Brewer has proposed that the state Legislature use federal stimulus money dedicated to child care assistance to temporarily restore all or part of the former income eligibility levels,” the letter reads. And it promises to tell people they will get their subsidies back “if the Legislature acts on the governor’s proposal.”
“That was accurate,” Senseman said.
But Rep. Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, said that isn’t the only way the governor — and her agency — were playing fast and loose with the facts to force legislative action. He said evidence was presented to members of the House Appropriations Committee to show that, even without stimulus dollars, DES had enough in its accounts to continue the subsidies through May for everyone now getting the financial help.
Biggs said lawmakers are being stampeded into quick action, with the letter used as a “club.”