SLASHING THE STATE: AN ONGOING SERIES
Republican state lawmakers earlier this week were finally releasing details of their spending plan for the upcoming year—and, to no great surprise, the proposals are brutal to anyone who cares about the citizens of the state.
Among the lowlights:
• All-day kindergarten is gone.
• KidsCare, the program that provides health insurance to children in households below 200 percent of the federal poverty line, is gone. That means we'll lose a lot of federal dollars that come into the state, because the feds provide a 3-to-1 match for the program.
• Healthy Arizona, the program that provides health insurance to people below the federal poverty level, is gone, with eligibility rolled back to one-third of the federal poverty level. If you're a single mom with two kids making more than roughly $6,100 a year, you will no longer qualify.
Even the Arizona Chamber of Commerce is against that one. Executive director Glenn Hamer—a former executive director of the Arizona Republican Party—says the move is just plain foolish.
"If you're taking 300,000 people off of health insurance, it doesn't mean they won't receive care," Hamer says. "Federal law requires that care be provided in the emergency room for people who go there for health-care needs. It's going to be covered one way or another. That's a highly inefficient, extremely expensive way to provide care."
Hamer says that ends up increasing costs for hospitals, which leads to a "hidden health-care tax."
"What winds up happening is those costs are passed on to private insurance; private insurance passes those costs on to the private sector; and the cost of insurance goes up, which means fewer businesses can afford to provide coverage, which means that fewer Arizonans will have coverage," he says.
Hospitals also lose more money and have to raise their rates or close.
Whether it's even legal remains to be seen, since voters set the eligibility standards, so the conventional thinking is that the program is voter-protected.
But Rep. John Kavanagh, who heads the House Appropriations Committee, says he believes lawmakers are on solid legal ground in reducing the eligibility, arguing that voters only meant to use money from a tobacco lawsuit settlement to cover the health-care costs. The initiative plainly states that the state should use other funds once the tobacco money runs out, but Kavanagh says he's found a loophole, because the initiative called for the use of "other available funds."
"We are $3.3 billion in the hole, so there are no available funds," says Kavanagh.
• The Department of Juvenile Corrections is gone, with kids sent back to their home counties for incarceration, and the cost passed along to county governments, which will have to raise the taxes that state lawmakers are too cowardly to hike.
And this is just the tip of the spear that's being plunged into the heart of state government.
If all of this disturbs you as much as it disturbs us, you should call Republican lawmakers who are supporting this plan at their toll-free number, (800) 352-8404. And then make another call to Gov. Jan Brewer at (800) 253-0883.
If you've never made a call like this before, now is the time.
KISS YOUR STATE PARKS GOODBYE
Arizona's state parks have been one of the chief victims of the state's budget crisis.
The parks don't depend on state general-fund dollars; instead, they get their money from admission fees, special gas taxes to improve lakes, and other sources, such as a portion of lottery funds that was diverted to parks by voters.
But with the state facing a historic budget crunch, GOP leaders are unwilling to seriously talk about tax reform. Instead, they've been borrowing against future revenues and snatching money away from every account they possibly can.
That includes the parks, which saw more than $18 million swept away to cover other government costs. As a result, the State Parks Board has been forced to close 13 parks.
And the new budget proposal under consideration this week sweeps away the Heritage Fund dollars generated by the lottery, and grabs other park funds.
Supporters of the parks, including Rep. Russ Jones, a Republican from Yuma, have come up with the idea of allowing voters one last chance to save the state parks: a $12-a-year fee on car registrations that would also give anyone who paid the fee free daytime admission to the parks. Voters would have to approve the new fee in November.
Sandy Bahr, legislative lobbyist for the Sierra Club, says the organization supports the bill, because voters will have the final say.
"They can decide if they want to pay a fee that allows them to get into the state parks for day use for free," Bahr says. "It's a bargain."
But the plan has hit a snag: Rep. John Kavanagh, the Fountain Hills Republican who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, is refusing to hear HCR 2040.
"It's another tax on families who can't afford more taxation right now," says Kavanagh, who complains that property taxes are on the rise, and voters may yet approve a sales tax later this year.
And voters shouldn't decide whether they're willing to pay an extra buck a month to keep state parks open, either, because they don't understand the complexities of budgeting.
"You need a lot of background to give it perspective," he says.
Kavanagh concedes that lawmakers took away the funds that were appropriate for funding parks—namely, entry fees and other dedicated funds.
"I think the sweeps were too deep, and that money will be restored soon, so we probably don't even need this down the road," Kavanagh assures us. "A prime priority will be to get all parks open again soon."
But Kavanagh says park re-openings might not be with state staff, but with private operators who would run the parks—a plan whose details remain sketchy.
Here's the big problem with that: Parks need to be managed not only for day-to-day users, but for long-term ecological health, which means having a management team that keeps environmental concerns ahead of profit.
"Having a responsibility to protect a public resource into the future is much different from making a buck," Bahr says. "They're different goals, and they don't always match. I'm sure, for the short term, they could make a lot more money off Kartchner Caverns. What would be left for the future? Would some private entity be concerned about whether the bat nursery was protected? Probably not."
Bahr worries that some lawmakers see this as an opportunity to get rid of the state parks.
"Part of this is: Do you believe in having a park system?" Bahr says. "I'm not sure that some of these legislators believe in the state park system. I gotta think that most Arizonans do."
FOLLOW THE BLOGISLATURE!
We're all out of room, but there's lots more going on at the Legislature. Check out The Range at blog.tucsonweekly.com for updates on The Blogislature, which will have the latest on all the bills we're following.
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