Arizona’s gubernatorial candidates vow in the face of a fiscal crisis to streamline state government while taking better care of children.
Democrat Janet Napolitano, Republican Matt Salmon and independent Richard Mahoney say child care, child abuse and neglect, and early-childhood education will be top priorities if they’re elected governor.
Only Libertarian Barry Hess wants to reduce government’s role in the lives of all Arizonans, including children.
However, the next governor immediately faces an estimated $400 million current-year budget deficit, then must tackle a new budget that could be as much as $1.4 billion out of whack.
That has child advocates and state bureaucrats worrying about just protecting the programs they have, much less dreaming about new or expanded services for children and families.
And while the candidates give great weight to the state’s budget mess, they still say they can do more with less.
“I believe there are a lot of dollars that are being squandered within the system simply because we don’t manage it well enough,” Salmon said. “I’m trying to find better ways to spend what we’re spending.”
The devil, as they say, is in the details.
Salmon said one approach might be to get businesses more involved. He cited a Colorado public-private partnership, Educare, that combines business, philanthropic, community and government organizations to support a child care rating system and public-education campaign, and evaluate the state’s early-learning programs.
“We don’t always have to come up with a new government approach,” he said.
Napolitano and Mahoney would close tax loopholes to generate more money for children’s programs. But even if they could get legislators to go along, which is a big if, the new revenue won’t come for several years.
In the short term, Mahoney is proposing nearly $500 million in budget cuts to put more money into education and health care. That includes eliminating some state agencies and consolidating others.
He would use $19 million to increase funding for Head Start, the primary source of free preschool education in Arizona and most other states. Arizona’s $95Êmillion allocation serves less than half of the state’s eligible children. To qualify, families must be at or below the federal poverty level, which is $17,650 a year for a family of four.
Arizona contributes the minimum match to get federal Head Start money, but 22 other states supplement their federal allocation to offer preschool to more at-risk children.
Mahoney also would offer a $500 tax credit to help an estimated 183,000 low-income Arizonans pay for child care.
“That’s the real notch group of people who need child care and can’t afford it,” he said. “It’s a real problem for the working poor and the lower middle class.”
Napolitano said it may be two or three years before the state can afford to increase its Head Start funding, but she would urge Congress to expand the nearly 40-year-old program as it comes up for federal reauthorization next year.
In the meantime, she said “hot spot” areas where at-risk families live could be targeted with mentors, reading specialists and other community programs to achieve her goal of getting every child reading by third grade.
Making better use of state trust land and reducing public-school administration could generate additional funding for early-childhood education and literacy, which would bring big dividends down the road, Napolitano said.
“Our common sense teaches us that anything we invest in those early years will pay off,” she said. “If we get these kids ready for school and get them reading, we will reduce the dropout rate.”
She would urge employers to allow pretax payroll deductions for child care expenses, and better publicize the state’s child care subsidy program.
The subsidy program, however, is nearly maxed out. The floundering economy has increased the number of people who qualify for help to pay child care bills, as well as those on the state’s welfare rolls.
None of the candidates had a ready answer for how to deal with a potential waiting list for child case subsidies.
“If we end up with a waiting list, what happens to those people?” said Joy Bauer, executive director of the Arizona Child Care Association, which represents for-profit child care centers.
“We’re talking about serious budget issues,” said Bauer, a member of the Tribune’s Born to Learn advisory panel. “We just have to remain focused on keeping what we have, which we know isn’t adequate.”
Salmon would consider expanding the tuition tax credit program to include preschool, creating a preschool voucher program and minimizing bureaucracy by consolidating the various state agencies that deal with children.
He has pointed out that he shepherded a three-pronged child welfare program, Success by Six, through the Legislature when he was a state senator. But Salmon stopped short of vowing to protect the child abuse prevention, prenatal care and literacy programs from budget cuts if he’s elected. The programs have been cut or considered for cuts almost since they were created in 1994, and now are funded with tobacco settlement money, a limited source.
“Next year is going to be a very difficult year across the board,” he said, but added, “Success by Six is a priority for me.”
Napolitano said the programs would not be cut if she becomes governor, and Mahoney said he would not only protect them, but expand them.
The candidates said they would rely on the newly appointed state Board on School Readiness to help them develop long-term strategies for early-childhood care and education.
“We have to come up with some more creative-type solutions,” Salmon said. “But rather than me just jumping out there and saying, ÔI’m going to do this, this, this and this ...’ we really need to listen to the experts.”
Likewise, Napolitano said it’s impossible to detangle state bureaucracies until you can get inside them. She would start by making state Child Protective Services answer directly to her.
“You cannot know the ins and outs of how they are spending their money and where it’s going,” she said, until you have access to the agency and its leaders.
In the first six months, she plans a “top-to-bottom review” of CPS, including all policies, procedures, training and worker caseloads. Napolitano said the state isn’t maximizing the use of federal funding that’s available for CPS administration and the foster children themselves.
Mahoney said he would increase the number of CPS workers, improve their pay and their training and reduce their caseloads. The same goes for inspectors who regulate child care centers. The state has a significant backlog in annual child care inspections.
“We just do such a poor job,” he said. “It’s irresponsible.”
Child development experts are looking to the next governor to protect programs that affect children and families, hoping that the body of research on infants’ brain development and the effect of quality early-learning programs will convince the state’s next leader that there is too much at stake.
“There are so few places where a family can place an infant and have confidence that that child’s brain and personality will develop normally,” said Jill Stamm, an Arizona State University professor, expert on infants’ brain development and Born to Learn panel member. “Parents don’t have any safety net for what to do with those children.”