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Legislature blows smoke

Citizen Staff Writer



When Arizona voters decided in 2006 to tax tobacco to benefit young children, they never said legislators could pilfer that money.

But that’s what lawmakers did Saturday, taking $7 million of interest money away from the children’s program First Things First.

Now some legislators are even eyeing the voter-created fund itself, which has grown to more than $300 million.

But serving the Legislature’s budget needs wasn’t what voters had in mind when they approved Proposition 203, levying a new cigarette tax of 80 cents per pack.

Rather, the initiative was designed to help our littlest Arizonans, those age 5 and younger, with high-quality early childhood development and health programs.

Prop. 203 created the Arizona Early Childhood Development & Health Board, better known as First Things First.

For skeptical voters, a big selling point of Prop. 203 was its promise to let local communities decide themselves how their share of dollars would be spent.

So 31 regional councils have been set up across the state to determine their communities’ needs. And more than 80 percent of all program revenue is guaranteed to be pumped into those communities.

Another selling point was the idea that, even as people stopped smoking and tobacco taxes withered, the original money would continue to generate interest.

The Legislature now has put a pox on that latter notion, snatching away the $7 million in interest earned.

But while $7 million may not seem like much in the grand scheme of Arizona’s needs, it would pay for early childhood program needs of the Tohono O’odham Nation for 10 years.

Or that $7 million could allow 25,000 children to be enrolled in early care and education programs.

Or it could pay for 80,500 toddlers to be screened for developmental delay.

More important in the long run, perhaps, the money could have generated more interest, ultimately helping more kids.

The Legislative Council determined, though, that lawmakers were entitled to take the money.

Would voters have understood that when they passed Prop. 203 two years ago? “I highly doubt that,” says state Rep. David Bradley, a Tucson Democrat known for his advocacy on children’s issues.

“Given the state’s dire straits, there are those (legislators) here who say, ‘Let’s go get that (principal) money,’ ” Bradley warns.

But that pot of cash is voter-protected: It would not exist if not for the initiative voters approved.

Of course, neither would the $7 million in interest.

By taking that money, the Legislature has punished First Things First for conducting its business the correct way.

Before spending money, the board wanted the regional councils to assess their local needs.

“It takes time to do that; there’s just no easy way,” Bradley notes.

Also, rather than spend its projected tax revenues, First Things First wanted to know what money it had on hand “so we are not overspending on what will be available for the following year,” notes J. Elliott Hibbs, the program’s executive director.

And finally, because the revenue source is expected to decline, First Things First wanted to have enough money on hand after eight or 10 years to evaluate the program’s results.

If more children start school ready to learn, more third-graders are reading at grade level and more children are in good health thanks to preventive care, then perhaps Arizonans would continue to invest in First Things First, even if a tobacco tax is no longer viable.

Kids learn at the most radically rapid rates when they’re the youngest – ages 0 to 5. It’s as if their brains are giant sponges, soaking up information almost instantaneously.

If those “sponges” are kept healthy and taught well, virtually nothing can stop them from succeeding once they start school.

But if youngsters are not nurtured, all that rich potential is squandered, and a ton of our tax dollars get spent trying to play catch-up on their health and education.

The aptly named First Things First aims to get our kids on the right track – at a bargain price.

Cigarette smokers not only fund the kids programs, but also save taxpayers from having to spend more in the long run.

Voters clearly understood this whole scenario when they approved First Things First in 2006.

It’s too bad a majority of our lawmakers still just don’t get it.

Billie Stanton has specialized in children’s health and education issues for more than 15 years. Reach her at bstanton@tucsoncitizen.com and 573-4664.

The initiative was designed to help our littlest Arizonans, those age 5 and younger.

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