- Associated Press - Friday, March 28, 2014

PHOENIX (AP) - Arizona Senate President Andy Biggs on Friday dismissed as “ridiculous” a provision in a House-passed state budget requiring the Legislature to revisit child-welfare funding when details of what’s needed to overhaul Child Protective Services are released in coming weeks.

Biggs, R-Gilbert, also appeared skeptical that a deal with House members that continued funding for school districts that convert schools to charters could win support in the Senate.

Changing either of those provisions could doom the $9.24 billion spending plan for the budget year beginning July 1 if it returns to the House. A group of Republicans negotiated to get the provisions as a condition of their support for a smaller plan passed last week in the Senate.

“The budget is a package. So if you change one piece of the package, the entire package is back up for review,” said Rep. Heather Carter, one of the Republicans who initially opposed the package. “Everything, the CPS, the charter issue, the spending in other areas.”

The House passed the budget late Thursday after days of fits and starts as Republican Speaker Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, negotiated with opponents of the Senate plan from his own party.

Gov. Jan Brewer ordered Child Protective Services pulled from its parent agency in January and created a Cabinet-level post to oversee it after more than 6,500 uninvestigated abuse and neglect reports were revealed in November. A group of lawmakers and others are working with Brewer’s staff to write legislation to make that executive order permanent and expect to release it by May 1, although it could come earlier.

Adequately funding that new agency was a key goal of the House lawmakers who blocked the Senate budget Monday. They negotiated an extra $3 million for the new agency over the Senate plan, but more importantly, added a legislative intent clause, which drew Biggs‘ disdain.

“The document is not worth the paper it’s written on,” Biggs said. “It’s just a clap trap of crazy ideas. We’ve made the commitment. You don’t need that in there. It’s … an amorphous statement that is full of sound and fury but without any meaning.”

Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, negotiated the document’s inclusion to commit lawmakers to providing necessary funding. She included a sentence that laid out the need for funding for early intervention not now included in the budget.

“I don’t understand his rationale,” she said of Biggs‘ comments. “But obviously he doesn’t appear to understand mine. I needed something in place to reflect what I was being told, and I didn’t think it was unreasonable to ask.”

The Senate takes up the House budget early next week. If the senators adopt the House plan unchanged it goes to Brewer, although changes are quite possible.

The House revisions to the $9.18 billion budget adopted by the Senate last week add an additional $54 million in spending, bringing the total to $9.24 billion. The revisions include $33 million to keep about 60 new district charter schools running for another year, an additional $3 million for child welfare and $2.5 million for the University of Arizona. Rep. Ethan Orr, R-Tucson, said the money could help it start a planned veterinary school.

Biggs has been pushing for the charter-school revocations, saying the state could be on the hook for hundreds of millions in additional spending if they continue. He included a provision rescinding any conversions since mid-2013 in the budget that was stripped out by the House.

Charter schools get more money per student, but backers of the rollback argue that the campuses also can tap voter-approved bond money and overrides and end up with more money. Supporters of charter conversions say the extra money lets districts focus on innovative education and improve student performance.

Carter, who fought to keep district charter funded for another year, said Biggs should be on board.

“I don’t know why the Senate president would have trouble, because his language survived the House,” she said Friday. “The only real change is that they get funded for one more year.”

The deal also restores funding for low-income medical services like podiatry and emergency dental care and insulin pumps for adults that were cut during the budget crisis several years ago.

And Rep. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, managed to secure $900,000 in extra funding for private prison operator GEO Group. GEO operates two state prison facilities, and Kavanagh said it has cut rates for emergency beds during the recession and the new cash only partially restores the financial effect of the rate cut.

Democrats howled at the provision, saying the state was choosing private prison operators over school funding.


Associated Press writer Astrid Galvan contributed to this report..


Follow Bob Christie at https://twitter.com/APChristie.

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