The Farley Report from Phoenix #234: 12-16-15

Welcome to the final monthly Farley Report of the 2015 off-session. Next time I write you will be on January 13, the third day of the new legislative session, to kick off the weekly Farley Reports of the 52nd Legislature, 2nd Regular Session. 

Today, I’m focusing on giving voice to Arizona’s voiceless — children, working families and the shrinking middle class (most of us!), refugees, and prisoners. There’s a lot of important news affecting these people, and you’re going to want to read the inside story after this brief pledge break…

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On December 2, Gov. Ducey’s hand-picked Director of Child Safety (DCS), Greg McKay, issued a press release bragging about DCS’s “Outstanding Accomplishments”. In it, he made a wonderful announcement for anyone who cares about keeping kids safe in Arizona: “We have attacked this problem head on and are now seeing monumental results,” said McKay. “When we can outrun incoming demands, it leaves time to finish old work that continues to haunt our dedicated staff.” 

The only problem is, his statements couldn’t be further from the truth. 

In a report that was required by law to be delivered by DCS to the Legislature on September 30 (but was finally sent to us on December 9, a week after his press release) it was revealed that — despite $60 million additional appropriated to eliminate the backlog of investigated child safety cases, and despite a benchmark set by McKay last spring that sought to reduce those cases to 1,000 — the number has risen to 14,899. At the same time, the number of caseworkers assigned to cases has dropped from 1,190 to 930, while the number of children in the care of the state is approaching 20,000.

In a move yesterday that surprised me and my fellow Joint Legislative Budget Committee members, Director McKay with no warning decided not to show up to defend his performance at our quarterly committee meeting at the Capitol. 

I had a whole lot of questions to ask him about why the backlog of child safety cases has increased to nearly 15,000 instead of shrinking and what they plan to do about it, why the number of caseworkers has gone down more than 10% since June, and why most recent report on this was nearly two and a half months late.

One of McKay’s assistants took his place in front of our committee, and told me in testimony that he DOES NOT KNOW if enough of the investigation has been completed in those 15,000 cases to determine if there is an imminent risk to the children involved. He does not know if any of those children are currently in danger. 

He also said that they might start to get a new child safety database up and running in  2018 at the earliest, five years after we appropriated the funding. The current system, designed in the 80s, has been losing track of records and endangering children for many years.

I am utterly outraged at the lack of competence shown by the current leadership at DCS, lack of responsiveness to the public, and the clear and present danger this is posing to Arizona's kids right now. This must change.

My fellow committee members shared my outrage, leading to a moment of true bipartisan leadership at the Capitol, at the service of Arizona's kids, as reported by the Arizona Capitol Times:

"Lawmakers this afternoon voiced their displeasure with the progress, or lack thereof, at DCS in the tenure of Director Greg McKay. At a JLBC hearing, lawmakers cast a bipartisan vote to accept a DCS report on the agency’s progress towards benchmarks set for the first quarter of FY2016 with an “unfavorable review.” Farley made the substitute motion to rebuke DCS over the objection of Olson, the JLBC chair, who had motioned to accept the report with no comment. Although it sounded to our reporter as if Olson was the only one to cast a “no” vote against Farley’s motion, the chair nonetheless ruled that the motion failed. Farley called for a division vote, at which point Olson was forced to change his ruling."

You can read full coverage of this hearing, which needs to be spread far and wide, from these three links:

Howie Fischer in the Arizona Daily Star

KJZZ-FM Radio

Mary Jo Pitzl in the Arizona Republic

It’s clear to me, and to many child advocates, that a number of things need to happen NOW to keep kids safe in Arizona. 

1) Outsource casework right now to some of the many private child safety organizations that can investigate the backlogged cases to establish ASAP whether the kids involved are in imminent danger.

2) Restore the prevention and early intervention programs that have been slashed since 2009. Those programs (such as Healthy Families and childcare subsidies for working parents) were effective in producing a downward trend in child abuse and neglect reports prior to 2009, when the total annual reports were around 15,000 a year. After the cuts began, that number began a steady upward climb to more than 25,000 a year presently. Children taken from their families in 2009 stood at just over 9,000. Now they number nearly 20,000. This created the triage-crisis situation we are in today, a situation that will continue until we re-invest in keeping families and kids safe in the first place through prevention programs. 

3) Hire new leadership at DCS — proven leaders with experience in child safety and prevention who understand how to make the system work for kids.

4) Give frontline caseworkers significant raises and more training to keep experienced people in place where they are needed and reduce the 33% turnover currently facing DCS. This is a tough job, and we need to give those who volunteer to do the work the support they need to keep doing it.

5) Fully fund our public schools — the most effective tool at our disposal for reducing poverty. Poverty is the most significant risk factor for child neglect. Too often a parent in poverty faces a choice between leaving a child alone or in substandard care to go to work at a low-wage job to feed and house his or her children, or turning down work to stay at home and take care of the children. Education can break that cycle by opening up new opportunities. 

6) Create more jobs for working class and middle class Arizonans (see #5 about reducing poverty).

I will continue to fight as hard as I can to fix DCS and make Arizona kids safe again. It will not be easy, but if we can’t do this as a state, what else matters?

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Along the lines of long-term solutions, I have an interesting question for you: Would you rather state money be invested in our public schools or given away to the rich in yet another tax cut? 

Governor Ducey has chosen the latter.

You recall that the Governor and the legislative majority (instead of using cash already available) are asking us in Proposition 123 to approve settling the K-12 education inflation funding lawsuit in May primarily with state education land trust money that is already earmarked for K-12, reducing the amount available for schools in the future.

By doing this, they left a whole lot of surplus money ($1.1 billion if you include the Rainy Day Fund) on the table. To keep faith with voters, it could be invested during the upcoming session in the many programs we need that have been slashed over the past five years, such as child safety, school building maintenance, JTED/CTE restoration, our universities, our community colleges, transportation, and much more.

Or it could be given away to the rich in the form of massive new tax cuts.

Governor Ducey is now shopping around his plan to do just that, a plan that will likely be revealed on Jan. 11 at his State of the State speech.

The details? He wants to phase out the state income tax completely over the next four years and replace it with higher sales taxes on the poor, including taxing groceries.

If you earn less than $50,000 a year, you already pay either zero or very little state income tax. The bulk is paid for by those earning more than $150,000 a year. So if that tax is eliminated, the result is simple. The rich get richer and the rest of us get screwed.

If this plan is enacted, Prop 123 effectively turns into a referendum on more tax cuts, not more funding for schools. This would endanger its chances at the polls.

The Governor's tax plan was developed in a study by the former Goldwater Institute research director and published by the ASU Center for Economic Liberty, a new think tank funded by our favorite Kansas oil billionaires, the Koch Brothers. Here is a link to the study: http://research.wpcarey.asu.edu/…/CSEL-Policy-Report-2015-0…

I am not making this up. When you decide who to elect to the next Legislature, please #‎RememberInNovember

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Shortly after the Paris attacks (organized by terrorists who were citizens of France and Belgium, not refugees), Governor Ducey decided to give in to political opportunism and try to ban all refugees (from anywhere in the world) from coming to Arizona.

This is so wrong from so many perspectives, it is hard to know where to start.

If he is worried about Daesh/ISIS infiltrating Arizona, why does he want to ban refugees from Central America, Africa, or anywhere else? America is beloved by so many in the world because we have always tried to find a way to welcome those who are running from terror and provide them a safe harbor. Much of our strength in the world (and the strength of our economy!) comes from our brave hospitality to those in trouble.

The refugees he is presumably most worried about -- those fleeing Syria -- are law-abiding, productive families who have had their homes and businesses destroyed and family members brutally murdered by the very same terrorists who just brutally murdered scores of innocent Parisians -- Daesh/ISIS! Syrian refugees are on our side against the barbarism of those who would destroy civilization. They are not our enemy. Unless we say that they are.

Ducey may want to stop Islamic terrorists, but he and other opportunistic governors are playing right into Daesh's hands. Their strategy in attacking the West through terror is to inspire us to divide ourselves from each other by dismissing all Muslims and refugees as terrorists. If we reject and demonize refugees and Muslims among us, then we alienate them. 

That gets Daesh just what they want: A large and fertile breeding ground for terror within the United States -- an alienated Muslim minority being offered a choice to either be loyal to a country which rejects them as evil, or to a terrorist movement that says it is acting in their name to establish an Islamic state.

We must not inadvertently do the terrorists' bidding. We can keep ourselves safe by living into our American promise and finding a way to welcome those who are in need of our help, whatever their homeland. Whether we act from fear, hatred, and divisiveness, or from courage, love and unity, we will reap what we sow.

In that regard, I have decided to act differently from our Governor.

RefugeeWelcomeLR.jpg

I recently spoke with the national director for Episcopal Migration Ministries about how we can respond in a loving way to the ugly rhetoric and actions of many of our politicians regarding refugees who undergo two years of stringent background checks in order to be approved for resettlement here. She told me that many of these families running from terror who have escaped trauma are being re-traumatized by what they hear and see from many of our leaders.

I suggested a simple strategy using personal diplomacy that we all can do -- extending our own hearts to welcome those who are coming from around the world to Arizona.

I've created a group called Arizona Welcomes Refugees to help facilitate this action -- if you want to take part, or suggest other welcoming actions the group can do, please join that Facebook group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1498283150502014/ 

Please share and invite others. We are starting out in Tucson because that's my home, but we are also starting up this effort in Phoenix, so those of you from the Valley of the Sun can also sign on!

Every Wednesday night at 7pm at Grace St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Tucson (2331 E. Adams St), our growing group is hanging out with a number of refugee families for a potluck and signmaking party, generously sharing ourselves with each other. This is so much fun, and so important in changing the increasingly xenophobic attitude of many in our community. You can make a difference, one person at a time.

After we make the signs, we go to the Tucson Airport in the subsequent week to welcome newly arriving refugee families and to honor their new life in our state, and we donate household items to help them settle in. Some of our group are even hosting a baby shower for one of the Iraqi women who arrived recently. 

These personal acts of kindness were met in print with attacks by Arizona Republic columnist Bob Robb who impugned our character and called our efforts "political theater".

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Seriously, Mr. Robb? It’s not possible that we believe that the best way to fight terrorism is to show refugees that we welcome them? It’s not possible that we actually want refugees to feel welcome in this vicious climate? It’s not possible that we do this because we believe in it, and do this in spite of polls telling us that we do this at our own political peril? It's not possible that those of us who are Christians believe that Jesus commanded us to love one another, without exception? It's not possible that we seek to honor our own ancestors who came to this country fleeing war and violence?

Using personal diplomacy to welcome families who are running from terror is one of the most powerful things we can do as American citizens to make a real difference in these families' lives as we seek to change today's ugly and hateful political climate to one that honors the American value of brave hospitality. Please do what you can today to demonstrate the best of America. That's not a political stunt. It's who we really are.

And maybe I’ll see you some Wednesday at Grace St. Paul’s to make some signs and share some food and company.

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Finally tonight, I want to invite you to a panel on which I will be speaking on prison reform this Friday at Downtown Tucson’s Etherton Gallery, 135 S. 6th Avenue, at 7pm. The discussion will address the ever-expanding prison population, reducing penalties for non-violent crime and the expansion of the private prison system in Arizona.  

Moderated by Jim Nintzel, political reporter for the Tucson Weekly and host of television’s Zona Politics, panel members include: Arizona State Senator Steve Farley, journalist Margaret Regan, author of Detained and Deported (2015); General Counsel, Arizona Senate Democratic Caucus, Lisette Flores; and Grace Gámez of the American Friends Service Committee. 

It will be an informative discussion about prison and judicial sentencing reform against a backdrop of 80 compelling photographs documenting prison life by one of the 20th century's most important visual artists, Danny Lyon. I hope to see you there.

Have a great holiday season, and I will see you in January!

Thanks for your continuing faith in me as your Senator. 

Steve

Steve Farley

Senator, District 9, Tucson

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