Arizona Senate panel OKs $60M in child agency cash

PHOENIX - The Arizona Legislature's appropriations committees on Wednesday approved $60 million in extra spending to overhaul the state's child welfare agency and deal with a massive backlog of cases.

Panels in both the Senate and House unanimously approved the spending. Some Republican senators questioned new agency director Charles Flanagan about how the money will be used, but they joined all eight members present in voting for the bill anyway.

In the House, there was little discussion before the committee's 11-0 vote.

"There doesn't appear to be any objection to the appropriations from the Democrats or the Republicans, so it went quite smoothly," said Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, the committee chairman. "It's a bill that everybody is squarely behind. There's no room to argue, and no room for disagreement. This doesn't happen very often."

Two other committees in the Senate and House were also poised to pass bills making policy changes and creating a new Department of Child Safety to replace the old Child Protective Services department.

The moves will pave the way for the full Legislature to vote on the bills Thursday.

Speaker Andy Tobin said he expects the House to adopt the bill unanimously, especially after he and Senate President Andy Biggs added reporting requirements for the new agency.

Those requirements include reports to the Legislature on the hiring of newly authorized child safety workers and elimination of a backlog that exceeds 15,000 cases. Tobin and Biggs abandoned a proposal to hold back half of the funding until those benchmarks were met after objections from Gov. Jan Brewer.

"I haven't heard of a no yet on the process," Tobin said. "I think this is turning the light switch on to a new agency, and I think the members are more than willing to say:  `Hey, let's move this process down the road.' "

The Republican governor proposed the overhaul after revelations late last year that more than 6,500 abuse and neglect reports were closed without investigation by the old Child Protective Services department.

Brewer set up a temporary department in January under Flanagan, the former head of the state's juvenile corrections department. The Legislature gave her about $59 million to help remake the agency in the upcoming budget

The additional $60 million the governor wants brings total agency funding to $827 million in the budget year that begins July 1. That's up from $626 million two years ago. The plan adds extra child welfare and criminal investigators and creates bonuses for new caseworkers who stay past 18 and 36 months in an effort to reduce turnover.



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