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Stimulus funds may be used to rescue child care subsidies

Gov. Jan Brewer

Gov. Jan Brewer

PHOENIX – It looks like legislators may give Gov. Jan Brewer the fast-track legislation she wants to maintain child care subsidies now slated to be eliminated Friday because of midyear budget cuts.

A budget cleanup bill being drafted at the behest of House and Senate Republican leaders for consideration by the full Legislature this week will include a provision to authorize using $18.2 million of federal stimulus money to pay for continuing the child care subsidies through the current fiscal year, a senior Senate aide said Tuesday.

“We are targeting getting it done this week,” said Michael Hunter, a senior policy adviser to the Senate’s Republican majority.

The renewed funding would maintain subsidies for 15,000 children in low-income families now receiving the benefits. It could also benefit families of 5,000 additional children expected to start getting the subsidies in coming months if the program continues.

The subsidies, intended to provide safe care for children so their low-income parents can work, were a casualty of midyear budget cuts made by the Department of Economic Security after legislators and Brewer reduced the social-welfare agency’s budget in January to help close a big state budget shortfall.

DES sent termination notices late last week to care providers and current recipients, saying that subsidies will end Friday.

In her March 4 speech, Brewer had asked lawmakers to “quickly, and no later than March 14,” send her legislation authorizing her to use $20 million of federal stimulus money to restore the child care funding.

“This is assistance for working parents (who) won’t be working without child care; 20,000 children are depending on us,” Brewer said March 4.

According to a proposal prepared by Brewer’s office, the stimulus money provided for child care subsidies can’t be used for any other purpose. Also, it’s assumed that newly available money from an Arizona early childhood-development program funded by a tobacco tax will provide subsidies for some children who lose DES benefits, the proposal said.

In addition to maintaining subsidies, the stimulus money also would be used to roll back higher copays and reduced payments for providers that also resulted from the budget cuts, Brewer’s office said.

Unlike most categories of stimulus money, the governor cannot spend child care dollars without legislative authorization, according to both Hunter and Brewer’s office.

Though some legislative leaders had suggested that DES actually had enough money to keep the subsidies going well into spring, a department spokeswoman said it would have been irresponsible for DES officials to not send the notices to families and providers when they did.

“Every week that we do not implement these reductions means more than $1 million spent that we don’t have,” said Liz Barker Alvarez.

The authorization would be for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, Hunter said. “One thing that needs to be understood is that this is just a temporary fix,” he said.

Legislators are now in the early stages of work on a budget for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Hunter said the budget cleanup bill also could include other provisions, such as changes intended to respond to actual or potential lawsuits over budget issues.

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