Originally Published: May 7, 2016 6:22 a.m.
PHOENIX -- Arizona is going to restore a program it shelved six years ago to provide health care to the children of the working poor.
Without comment, Gov. Doug Ducey signed legislation Friday to allow Arizona to accept federal dollars to restart the KidsCare program. Backers say it could help about 30,000 children.
The governor's action came just hours after the Senate, over the objections of Republican legislative leaders, voted 16-12 to restore the KidsCare program in Arizona. The House had given its blessing Thursday night.
Ducey had never publicly supported the program. There was no explanation from his press aide about the decision.
But even with Ducey's signature, there may be hurdles. Senate Majority Leader Steve Yabrough, R-Chandler, said he anticipates a lawsuit, saying SB 1457 is illegal.
That's because the provision to restore KidsCare was attached to language dealing with eligibility of disabled students to continue to get vouchers to attend private and parochial school at taxpayer expense. Yarbrough said that violates a provision of the Arizona Constitution that says legislation can deal with only one subject.
But Rep. Kate Brophy McGee, R-Phoenix, one of the architects, said there is a connection between the two subjects and that the legislation will survive any legal challenge.
The measure is an expansion of the state's existing Medicaid program which provides free care to those earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of three, that is about $27,700 a year.
It is funded on a 2-1 match with federal and state dollars but administered by the state.
This measure deals with a separate federal program known as the Children's Health Insurance Program. It provides coverage for the children in families earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level, about $41,100 annually for the same family.
Arizona joined that program in 2001. Then-Gov. Jane Hull said the move made financial sense, noting there is a 3-1 match of federal to state dollars. It became known in Arizona as KidsCare.
In 2010 however, with the state facing a deficit, lawmakers decided the state could no longer afford its share. So they directed that no one new be signed up. And enrollment, then about 45,000, now is fewer than 1,000.
What changed is that Congress has decided to fully fund CHIP programs through 2017.
That, however, was not enough to sway Republican legislative leaders. In fact, Senate President Andy Biggs refused to even give a hearing to a House-passed bill to reinstate the program.
So rank and file Republicans joined with Democrats to line up the votes and find procedural ways to bypass the blockades thrown in their path.
On Friday, Biggs opted to simply allow a vote. But he was clearly displeased about being outmaneuvered.
The Senate president said he wasn't buying arguments that there would be no cost to the state. But he said even if that were not the case, Arizona shouldn't be lining up for the federal dollars.
Biggs, who is running for Congress, said the national debt increased by more than $1 trillion in the last six months and now stands at $19 trillion.
"While every program ... has an advocate and a desire to accomplish a certain albeit potentially even altruistic or beneficent purpose, at some point one realizes that perhaps we can't afford every program,'' he said.
And Sen. Nancy Barto, R-Phoenix, was unimpressed by arguments that Arizona has been the only state without a CHIP program.
"Well, kudos to us,'' she said.
That still leaves the legal question.
The Arizona Constitution says that "every act shall embrace but one subject and matters properly connected therewith.'' Yarbrough, who is an attorney, said SB 1457 does not comply.
"Frankly, if someone chooses to file suit, I suspect they will be successful,'' he said. And Yarbrough said if the attorney general attempts to defend the law all that will do is run up legal bills.
But Brophy McGee pointed out the underlying bill dealing with vouchers contains language about evaluating children to see if they need such help.
"So this would just make qualifying for KidsCare part of that plan, which I think is an excellent, excellent addition to that plan,'' she said. And Brophy McGee said both part of the bill -- vouchers and KidsCare -- deal with children with needs.
"These kids fall through the cracks all the time,'' she said.
"There are so many ways to catch them,'' Brophy McGee continued. "This creates another bridge to a healthy kid who can learn.''