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First Things First sues state over ballot language

The board of a voter-approved state program for early childhood development has sued lawmakers over the description of a ballot measure that aims to eliminate the program and sweep its money.

The Arizona Childhood Development and Health Board, commonly known as First Things First, said in its July 7 lawsuit that the ballot description for Proposition 302 violates the law, which states there must be an “impartial analysis” of each ballot proposal.

The board argues that the language, approved by the Republican-led Legislative Council, gives voters the impression that most of its money is spent on administrative costs.

“Instead of providing a fair and impartial description of how the fund is allocated, the Legislative Council’s analysis disproportionately emphasizes the administrative requirements of the fund,” the lawsuit states.

In fact, grants and programs account for 90 percent of the board’s expenditures while only 10 percent may be used for administrative costs, the lawsuit said. That information was not included in the ballot language.

The Legislative Council on June 23 approved the analysis, along with descriptions of nine other ballot proposals that will appear on the Nov. 2 ballot.

Approved by voters in 2006, First Things First is designed to provide early-development programs for children from birth through age five. It established an 80 cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes sold in the state to pay for such programs.

In March, the Legislature passed HCR2001, which seeks to disband First Things First and redirect its $325 million into state coffers.

The measure was one of several budget-balancing options that the Legislature passed in order to plug a multi-year, multi-billion dollar budget hole.

“It is not completely factual,” Sen. Richard Miranda, a Democratic member of the Legislative Council, said of the ballot language. “What’s factually true is that only up to 10 percent can actually pay for office services.”

Rep. Steve Farley, a Democrat from Tucson and a member of the Legislative Council, said the language aimed to obscure the program.

“They don’t want people to know that this is First Things First that they are being asked to repeal,” he said. “They want them to think that it’s just some random program that they came up with.”

But in an earlier interview, House Majority Leader John McComish, co-chair of the council, defended his committee’s action.

“It is a giant bureaucracy, so if we’ve given that impression then that’s an accurate impression,” McComish said, referring to the early childhood board.

“I think it’s improper to use emotional marketing terms to refer to a bill,” he said in response to concerns that the analysis should also have referred to the program by its more popular name, First Things First.

House Speaker Kirk Adams, co-chairman the Legislative Council, could not be reached for comment, but a staff lawyer said Adams stands by the language.

“The statute requires impartial analysis,” House Majority general counsel Peter Gentala said. “It’s very clear that the Legislative Council can’t exaggerate or omit information or have something that’s misleading. In this case, the speaker feels that Legislative Council hasn’t done any of those things.”

Oral arguments for the case are set for July 26.

Prop. 302, as adopted by the Legislative Council:

“1. Redirect the ongoing tobacco tax revenues that are currently deposited in the Early Childhood Development and Health fund for deposit in the state general fund, to be separately accounted for and appropriated for health and human services for children.

“2. Transfer any remaining uncommitted Early Childhood Development and Health fund monies to the state general fund on December 1, 2010.

“3. Terminate the Arizona Early Childhood Development and Health Board on December 1, 2010.

“4. Repeal the Early Childhood Development and Health program statutes on June 1, 2011.

“The Early Childhood Development and Health Fund consists of revenues generated by an $.80 per pack tax on tobacco products and donations and state appropriations. The fund is administered by the Arizona Early Childhood Development and Health Board and is required to be used for the following purposes:

“1. Funding central and field offices, employing staff and establishing and appointing regional partnership councils, which make funding recommendations to the Board.

“2. Disbursing monies for programs and grants that increase the quality of and access to early childhood development and health services for children up to five years of age and their families.”

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