Guns, money top issues for Legislature
PHOENIX – It may sound like a movie title. But the issues that are going to dominate the upcoming legislative session are guns and money.
And they're even related: If Gov. Jan Brewer and lawmakers want more protection from gun violence for students in public schools and to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, they're going to have to come up with more cash.
Lawmakers return to the Capitol on Monday with the prospect of having perhaps $600 million more in anticipated revenues than what it will take just to keep state services at current levels.
But that presumes that the current level of funding is, in fact, adequate.
Funding for school resource officers aside, Brewer already has said she intends to seek more funding for K-12 education. And the governor has acknowledged that additional cash is needed for Child Protective Services to keep up with the caseload.
Then there's the question of whether to expand eligibility for the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, the state's Medicaid program.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that states need not comply with a provision of the federal Affordable Care Act to expand their program. But the federal law contains some financial “sweeteners” designed to induce states to expand eligibility to everyone up to 133 percent of the federal poverty level – really closer to 138 percent with some changes in methodology – by promising to pick up most of the cost.
The offer comes at a time when there is pressure on lawmakers to restore prior cuts to the AHCCCS program, notably the decision to stop enrolling single adults even if their income puts them below the federal poverty level. That has led to complaints from hospitals that they are being inundated by the number of uninsured at the state who go to hospital emergency rooms and then cannot afford to pay their bills.
The business community has lined up with the hospitals.
“As the uncompensated care costs have gone up, it puts increased pressure on private insurance premiums, which makes it more difficult for businesses, particularly small businesses, to afford health insurance,” said Glenn Hamer, president of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
But the Obama administration threw in a potential deal-breaker, saying the only way Arizona will get extra federal dollars is to take the whole enchilada and make everyone below 138 percent eligible for free care.
Philosophical differences over “Obama-care” aside, what worries some GOP lawmakers is that if Arizona expands its program – current eligibility is at 100 percent of the federal poverty level – thousands more will sign up and then the federal funding will dry up.
Senate President Andy Biggs said there are too many unanswered questions about what Medicaid expansion would ultimately cost the state.
“It's all over the place,” he said of the figures he's seen, not just for the first-year costs.
“Once you get beyond that, the cost grows dramatically,” Biggs said.
There's also some sentiment for banking some of the extra dollars.
The temporary sales tax that voters approved in 2010 self-destructs at the end of May. And while the state has enough left over from this current fiscal year to deal with the loss of the $1 billion in revenues, legislative budget staffers are predicting a deficit by 2016.
The guns side of the legislative agenda comes down to what, if anything, Arizona will do in the wake of the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
That shooting, two years after the Tucson incident that killed six and left then-Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords severely injured, has resulted in some calls for stronger limits on who can carry guns and where they can bring them.
Brewer, however, has already made it clear she likes the gun laws the way they are just fine. And given the legislative makeup, the chances of stiffer gun laws even getting approved are virtually nil.
A more likely scenario involves the debate over how best to protect schools. And the proposals on that are all over the board.
At one extreme are calls for allowing any teacher who is properly trained to carry his or her own weapon into the classroom. Proponents contend someone who is armed is the best defense against someone who is deranged and looking to shoot as many children as possible.
Scaled back from that is the proposal by Attorney General Tom Horne to have schools designate a single person who would have access to a weapon in case of emergency.
And the history of the Arizona Legislature shows lawmakers are more than willing to expand where guns can be carried: They approved measures allowing guns in public buildings and on the rights of way of college and university campuses.
But Brewer vetoed both. And she signaled that any move in that direction is likely to be vetoed.
Other answers to the question of gun violence come back to that question of money.
It's not just the proposal for more school resources officers.
There also is a consensus that the state needs to do more to prevent those with mental health problems from getting access to weapons in the first place. And that means beefing up the state's behavioral health system.
House Minority Leader Chad Campbell is using the issue to push for Medicaid expansion, saying it would make many more people eligible not just for physical care but also mental health services.