- Associated Press - Monday, May 26, 2014

PHOENIX (AP) - Top Republican leaders in the Arizona Legislature seem to be mainly on board with Gov. Jan Brewer’s plan to give a new child welfare agency another $60 million in funding when lawmakers convene for a special session Tuesday.

Where there is discord among lawmakers is how much money is planned for prevention services, a key Democratic priority. And Senate President Andy Biggs said he’ll push for added accountability measures to be built into the new agency to ensure it actually works better than the old Child Protective Services department it is replacing.

Biggs said there’s a bit of sticker shock but little disagreement that the new agency needs the money to dig out from a massive backlog of cases and set the new agency off on the right foot.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, agreed, saying he expects the governor’s spending request to go through smoothly when lawmakers convene.

The Republican governor proposed the overhaul after revelations last year that more than 6,500 child abuse and neglect reports were closed without investigation. The discovery was the most serious in a long string of problems at the agency.

Arizona has seen skyrocketing numbers of child abuse and neglect reports in the last several years as state lawmakers cut the agency’s funding to deal with a budget crisis. One of the first tasks is moving to eliminate a nearly 15,000-case backlog.

About half the new money is one-time spending, with about $23 million funneled into eliminating the backlog. New agency director Charles Flanagan said the goal for the new Department of Child Safety is to work through that backlog by January.

Biggs said while the goal is nice, he wants to see language in the law to make sure it really happens.

“I think we just need to constantly be monitoring this agency and the policies they’re putting in place,” said Biggs, R-Gilbert.

House Minority Whip Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said the $4 million in the plan to increase the number of children receiving child care subsidies that allow parents to work is tiny - and there’s $5 million in the plan to renovate a building for the new agency.

“I think there will be a discussion about if we don’t begin to provide prevention services how we’re going to stem the flow of children and families into the agency,” Meyer said. “Because a lot of the programs that we had in place in 2009 that were subsequently eliminated, they used to keep kids out of the CPS system.”

In the end, it will be difficult for lawmakers to vote against a plan designed to protect the state’s most vulnerable children.

“I think the votes are there” for a clean passage of the plan, said Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, who worked on the proposal. “Do I think there will be drama - yes.”

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