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AZ Voters to Decide Repeal of Early Childhood Programs

September 14, 2010

PHOENIX - In 2006, Arizona voters approved a new 80 cents-a-pack cigarette tax, with the proceeds earmarked for early childhood programs. Now a measure placed on the ballot by lawmakers would end that "First Things First" initiative and use the money to help balance the state budget.

Carol Stambaugh of the National Association of Social Workers Arizona chapter says repealing "First Things First" will deny at-risk pre-schoolers the intervention they need at a time when their brains are rapidly developing.

"It's a crucial phase. It's the sweet spot of development for a young child. And the lasting effects of this can be negative, and they can be negative for a lifetime."

Stambaugh says such services are not covered by any other state program. Lawmakers say they are counting on the "First Things First" money to avoid further cuts to education, low-income health care, and prisons.

This year's ballot measure, Proposition 302, makes no mention of "First Things First," referring instead to "early childhood development and health programs." Stambaugh says there's plenty of potential for voter confusion.

"A 'yes' vote is actually against "First Things First". A 'no' vote is actually for "First Things First". Voters need to really understand that whenever they say 'yes' they're saying 'yes' to taking away money."

Stambaugh says eliminating "First Things First" has the potential to cost the state far more in the long run. She says money spent now on prevention services for high-risk families can save taxpayer money in the future.

"We may see savings later on in education, as well as in juvenile justice and maybe later on in prison populations for those children whenever they're adults."

Stambaugh says "First Things First" provides mental health services for families whose children show early signs of behavior problems. Another program pays for continuing education for child care teachers. More than $300 million in funding is at stake.

Doug Ramsey, Public News Service - AZ