The Senate gave preliminary approval to Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposal to create a new child safety department over objections from some Republican lawmakers who were outraged by the level of new spending being appropriated without the accountability measures they desired.
The now $63 million spending plan would bring the budget of a new Department of Child Safety up to roughly $850 million, as Brewer seeks to start a new chapter in the state’s handling of cases of child abuse and neglect.
The Legislature is scheduled to return to action Thursday morning, when the Senate is expected to give final approval to the bills before the House takes up votes on corresponding legislation later in the day.
Biggs insisted he would have voted on a clean bill, with no amendments, but argued in favor of a proposal from Sen. Kelli Ward, R-Lake Havasu City, to hold back about $12 million in funding earmarked for hiring new caseworkers and helping to close the backlog of 14,777 abuse and neglect cases.
The Senate president told the Arizona Capitol Times before voting began on the floor that he knew the measure didn’t have enough votes to be approved, but thought there was merit to the idea of setting benchmarks for the department to meet before providing more state funding.
Technically, all the funding would be appropriated to the new agency, but Wards’ amendment called for delays in the disbursement of those dollars, Biggs said. The delay would have at least provided a way for the Legislature to hold the department and its director, Charles Flanagan, accountable for the promises they’ve made to meet specific goals for hiring new caseworkers and eliminating the backlog, Biggs said.
“There’s no move to get rid of their money, but there is a move to give accountability to the taxpayers,” Ward said in caucus.
The accountability effort was defeated with bipartisan opposition, as some Republicans argued Ward’s amendment was an exercise in futility given Brewer’s opposition to the idea.
“Sen. Ward’s amendment will cause the bill to be vetoed. There’s no question,” said Sen. Bob Worsley, R-Mesa, in a GOP caucus before the vote.
The vote to defeat Ward’s amendment, combined with the approval of an additional $3 million in welfare funding for the child safety department and the Department of Economic Security, left Biggs seething as he left the Senate.
The amendment, sponsored by Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, provides more funding in addition to the $4 million Brewer already requested for childcare subsidies.
Biggs told lawmakers in caucus he found it “disingenuous” that the governor had for weeks told leadership to keep the bill clean, but had decided at the eleventh hour that more spending was acceptable.
“This is why people like me say, ‘Who can you trust?” Biggs said as he left the Senate floor.
The Senate also adopted an amendment to ensure the new department would comply with the Indian Child Welfare Act and another amendment to add a representative from a faith-based organization to the new department’s community advisory board.
If the bills are to be approved by both chambers, similar amendments must be adopted with corresponding House bills. Senate Majority Leader John McComish, R-Phoenix, said he’s been told the governor and enough lawmakers in the House are on board with all the amendments adopted in the Senate.