First Things First's finances need some scrutiny

In 2006, Arizona voters passed a cigarette tax based on the promise of funding early childhood development programs through a newly created organization named First Things First.

Taxpayers have become the victim of this promise, which was a great idea that has been misshapen and lost its way and original mission.

While Arizona's public schools desperately cry out for additional funding, for years First Things First has been hoarding funds and currently maintains a surplus of more than $350 million.

Contrary to claims of operating with 8 percent overheard, according to the state of Arizona's General Accounting Office, First Things First spent nearly $27 million (17 percent) on administration and expenses in 2015. With a staff of almost 150 employees, the agency spends more than 20 cents for every dollar it distributes on overhead, advertising through billboards, radio and television commercials, all while employing six registered lobbyists, some paid as much as $10,000 per month in an effort to protect the status quo.

This year, I am proposing legislation to stop First Things First from wasting tens of millions of dollars each year on unnecessary administration by ensuring that early childhood dollars are invested where they are needed most: into the classrooms and our kids.

After valuable feedback from early childhood development stakeholders, my HCR 2044 would set aside the first $30 million in annual funding to be spent on programs that qualify for federal matching as state expenditures under the Child Care and Development Block Grant of 2014.

Second, my legislation would take the next $100 million of cigarette tax dollars and distribute them directly to local school districts ($1,162 per third grader) to be invested in early childhood literacy programs for children from 0-7 years of age. This would allow Arizonans to avoid First Things First's wasteful statutory 10 percent administration fee while empowering locally elected school boards to invest directly into programs they determine provide the greatest return for your communities.

Lastly, my legislation annually would dedicate $5 million of any remaining funds to support the Internet Crimes Against Children Enforcement Fund, protecting Arizona's most vulnerable victims from sexual predators.

While there is nothing in my proposal that prohibits schools from funding the same organizations that currently receive dollars today, it guarantees transparency and accountability by removing allocation decisions from self-dealing volunteer councils, often made up of nonprofit staff members who allocate money to the very organizations where they work. Instead, it places decision-making into the hands of locally elected leaders, providing local control and supporting parent choice.

While previous attempts by the Arizona Legislature to reform First Things First would have resulted in dollars simply being swept into the general fund, this year's legislation eliminates bureaucratic waste while investing your precious tax dollars into the programs deemed to be most effective by leaders who are accountable to you.

Research shows that there is no greater predictor of high school graduation, incarceration, or lifelong success than third grade reading. It's time this Legislature provides the opportunity for Arizonans to decide, once and for all, that precious early childhood development tax dollars should be invested in children and not a bloated bureaucracy with $350 million in the bank.

State Rep. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, is chairman of the House Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee.