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County Chief: AZ Public Health Threatened by Ballot Measure

August 10, 2010

PHOENIX - Arizonans will decide in November whether to reverse their 2006 decision to tax cigarettes an extra 80 cents a pack for early childhood health and education programs; lawmakers want that money to instead help remedy the state's continuing budget shortfall. A ballot measure would abolish the First Things First early childhood programs adopted by voters four years ago, which are funded by the tax, and redirect the tax to Arizona's general fund.

Maricopa County Public Health director Bob England says grants from First Things First are more than 10 percent of his agency's budget. The money goes for programs like one that partners a nurse with at-risk first-time parents for the first two years of their child's life. England says that, ironically, such programs could help avert future government budget problems.

"Those kids grow up and have 80 percent fewer encounters with the juvenile justice system. So that's 80 percent less need for courts, for juvenile detention, and by implication, probably many of those kids would have wound up in jail."

England says First Things First also pays for several other public health efforts. State lawmakers put the First Things First repeal on the ballot in hopes of using that agency's $325 million fund to help balance this year's state budget.

England says First Things First has given his chronically underfunded department the chance to implement programs that have a proven record of long-term positive impacts.

"They tend to save us money on the back end. That means that had we been doing this stuff 10 or 20 years ago, we would have had that much less of a financial crunch, a budget crunch, than what we're facing right now."

England says the choice for voters in November is to pay for early childhood health and education programs upfront, or to wait and deal with bigger problems down the road.

"You're essentially borrowing money because you're going to have to pay more than that money, sometimes a lot more than that money, later to pay for the extra health care, the extra social costs, even increased correctional costs, jails, prisons, courts and so forth."

Critics say First Things First is sitting on too much money and taking too long to make grants. The agency says it is simply being careful about how the money is spent.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ