Gov. Janet Napolitano’s plan to expand health care coverage for Arizona children could become a casualty of ongoing budget talks.
As the 2007 legislative session nears its 100th day, lawmakers are working hard to reach agreement on a $10.3 billion spending plan that could bring more roads and schools to the East Valley.
But one of the governor’s key proposals appears to have hit a major roadblock as top Republicans in the Senate signaled they won’t go along with Napolitano’s plan to offer nearly every child in the state access to low-cost health care coverage.
“We believe that goes well beyond the reach of what government should be doing,” said Senate Majority Whip John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, who has been involved in negotiations.
The governor had asked the Legislature to broaden eligibility for a heavily subsidized health plan, known as Kids Care, to include children living in families making up to $60,000 per year — or 300 percent above the federal poverty level.
The proposal was a key element of the governor’s priorities this year and prompted some to say it came close to universal health care for Arizona children.
Although Republican lawmakers are resisting the governor’s efforts, Senate President Tim Bee said they are willing to consider making a minor concession.
Lawmakers are looking at killing a state law that bars the Kids Care program from partnering with public schools to advertise its services.
That would allow the program — overseen by the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System — to reach the estimated 119,000 schoolchildren who are eligible for the program but not enrolled.
About 62,250 children participate in the program, according to AHCCCS spokeswoman Rainey Holloway.
Under the Kids Care plan, a family of four (two adults and two children) making about $2,700 per month would pay a $108 premium, according to AHCCCS records.
Although the governor declined to comment, high ranking Senate Democrats said if they can’t expand Kids Care, then allowing it to conduct outreach programs would be the next best thing.
“I believe this will enroll a lot more kids,” said Senate Minority Leader Marsha Arzberger, D-Tucson, who has also been involved in budget talks.
She said it could be difficult to expand the program because there’s less money coming to the state this year.
“If you can do something, it’s better than doing nothing,” she said Friday afternoon.
However, the proposal to lift the ban was met with caution from officials in East Valley schools who worry about the consequences.
Susan Horan, who works for the San Marcos Children’s Clinic in Chandler, said it’s hard to say whether letting Kid Care advertise on school campuses would benefit students.
“It would be the responsibility of the school to make sure advertising doesn’t interfere with school work,” said Horan, whose clinic is managed by Chandler schools.
Meanwhile, House and Senate lawmakers continued to work on separate budget proposals last week.
Talks have been ongoing for weeks. While the Republican-led House has taken a more partisan approach, the Senate has brought Democrats into the discussion.
“This is the best the two sides have ever worked together since I’ve been here,” Arzberger said.
While members from both parties and houses declined to offer specifics, they did say talks are now focused on the “big ticket items” such as spending on universities and kindergarten through -12th grade education.
One of the major sticking points appears to be how to pay for schools as the state’s population continues to grow.
The governor has stated her support of borrowing hundreds of millions of dollars to pay for new schools. But Republicans have repeatedly said they oppose such efforts.
Senate Majority Leader Thayer Verschoor, R-Gilbert, said he did not know of any plans to allow the state to borrow for school construction.
However, he did say there are still several plans being considered to pay for road construction.
They include the governor’s proposal to extend highway bonds from 20 years to 30 years to free up an estimated $400 million, as well as a plan to dip into the state’s so-called rainy day fund.
“Or there could be a combination of both,” Verschoor said.
Without the massive budget surplus of last year, there won’t be much money for East Valley lawmakers to bring home big projects to their districts.
Last year, with the state enjoying a $1 billion surplus, East Valley legislators were able to secure funding to expand Arizona State University Polytechnic in Mesa.
The project was considered essential for economic development of the area around the campus and Williams Gateway Airport. This year, ASU is fighting to get the money to build the Del E. Webb School of Construction.