New Children’s Action Alliance Leader January Contreras discusses Her Legislative Priorities for 2024

From The Children’s Action Alliance.

Former Biden/Harris Assistant Secretary for the Administration for Children and Families at the Department of Health and Human Services, Attorney, Public Interest Advocate, and 2018 Democratic Arizona Attorney General Nominee, January Contreras is having a “wonderful” time as the new head of the Arizona Children’s Action Alliance (CAA.) 

A 35-year-old bipartisan organization dedicated to the betterment of Arizona’s children, Ms. Contreras and her staff are focused this year on working with the State Legislature on:

  • Expanding access to childcare.
  • Improving the foster care system. 
  • Providing dental care for pregnant women. 

Ms. Contreras and her associate Karen McLaughlin graciously sat with us to discuss the CAA’s priorities for the new year and other issues facing Arizona’s children. 

The questions and their responses are below. 

  1. Please explain the Children’s Action Alliance’s three legislative goals for this session.
From CAA

January Contreras: “We have several legislative goals. The one that we want to highlight the most is childcare. We have a looming childcare federal fund cliff fast approaching. The Governor has included $100 million in investment in her budget for childcare. We’re going to be working really hard with partners across the state to help get legislative support for this so that more childcare providers can keep their doors open and our families can keep going to work doing what they need to support their families and have that childcare there.”

“We also, always have a high priority around child welfare and kids and families that are affected by the foster care system. We have a couple of items that we are working on that are about prevention; that is about equity for parents and supporting kinship care.”

“Also, on the health care side, we are working to increase oral (dental) health care so that more folks can have access to that and that is especially because it’s very important during pregnancy to have access to oral health care.”

  • What are at least three features of the Governor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year that you support? Please explain. 

Karen McLaughlin: “As January just said, the $100 million for childcare. That’s really important for us. The second is recognizing the need for increased funding in the Department of Child Safety, just for their operating dollars because they have been able to get the number of case workers up. They need the dollars behind it to continue to pay those workers as well as the operating costs that go with them. The third thing is the creation of a Kinship Support Services Program which is also in the Department of Child Safety. It’s really important for grandparents and other family members who are bringing kids into their home. They’re in a different situation than a traditional family foster family would be. They just need different support. That’s a really important program.

  • What are at least two items you wish the Governor had proposed in her budget but were not included in the first proposal?
From CAA

January Contreras: “Honestly, we had such a sense of relief that the $100 million was in there for childcare funding that we really don’t have other things to raise. This is something, as I mentioned, we really do have a looming crisis with federal funds and so having a Governor step forward with a plan to put some state funds in and finding the legislative support that we need is really top priority.”

Is the Oral Dental Care Program you support included in the Governor’s proposed budget? 

January Contreras: “We haven’t seen that in the budget.”

Would that be a separate legislative item or would you like to see that included in the budget? 

January Contreras: “There are a number of ways/approaches to how that can get done and there is one piece of legislation that I know has a hearing coming up and we’re excited about so we’re going to work on that from as many angles as we can.”

Ms. Contreras provided an update on that piece of legislation, stating that:

“This bill was heard this week and passed out of committee. This article explains how we can expand coverage of services without additional dollars: Adults who rely on Arizona’s Medicaid program may get expanded coverage | KJZZ

Furthermore, she relayed that “our health policy director just clarified that while we do believe there are many ways to tackle the dental health issue, AHCCCS did clarify their position on the bill I just mentioned to note that there is a fiscal impact at yesterday’s hearing.”

  • Based on recent legislative history, to what extent are you optimistic that a substantial portion of your legislative priorities will reach the Governor’s desk for signature? Please explain. 

January Contreras: “I think we always start out as optimists because that’s our job: to deliver for kids and families. We obviously know that this is a challenging budget year. Legislators have told us it is a challenging budget year and yet we continue to work with them and people in the Hobbs Administration to try to raise the understanding of the imperative we have for some of these issues with childcare again being at the top of that.”

Do you have a good rapport with both parties’ leaders?

January Contreras: “Children’s Action Alliance has been around for 35 years. Over that time, we’ve always worked really hard to create open lines of communication on both sides of the political aisle, and that absolutely remains true. 

  • Do you have a comment on the Governor’s proposed Proposition 123 2.0? Please explain.

Karen McLaughlin: “As you said, it just came out yesterday and we’re waiting to see more details. Prop123 certainly needs to be extended. To let it lapse would just be a really big hit to the general fund and requirements for K-12 Education. It’s important that it be renewed. Obviously, there is a need to increase pay for educators and that is part of what the Governor is proposing to do as well as Capital Needs. Those are important issues for Arizona’s Public Education System. We’re looking into the details of it but we are excited about that possibility.”

  • What do you think of the possible compromise, at the federal level, of legislation that would expand the child tax credit? Please explain.

January Contreras: “Well, revising the Federal Child Tax Credit in the ways that we’re getting information about would be a big win for families. There are a lot of families who, because their incomes are lower than the current structure allows, are either getting a partial credit or they’re not able to get a credit at all. Seeing that equity happens in the proposals and being able to allow for more families to be supported is exciting news. Quite frankly, reducing child poverty, which is a very important priority to the Children’s Action Alliance, is more of a math equation than art. We actually know what works. The Child Tax Credit does actually work. It actually does lift kids out of poverty. We’re very enthused to know that these conversations are happening and that they may be able to reach more families. 

Ms. Contreras provided an update on the Child Tax Credit, stating:

“We have a meeting with Senator Kelly’s staff coming up on CTC. Thank you for speaking to it. It is estimated to add eligibility for 424,000 kids in Arizona.”

Karen McLaughlin: “I will just say that we are connected to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in D.C. and they put out a paper that provides information on how many children in Arizona will receive the expanded credit. Please see below.”

https://www.cbpp.org/research/federal-tax/about-16-million-children-in-low-income-families-would-gain-in-first-year-of

If President Biden is reelected along with a Democratic Congress, would the CAA push for increased federal action on childcare expansion?

January Contreras: “Having just come from the federal side (as Assistant Secretary for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services,) there was work going on every single day to figure out how we can get the support that was needed in Congress for childcare, for providers, for families. I expect that to continue. No matter really who wins, I think the conversation is not going to go away. As we approach this spring and summer and this federal pandemic money does expire, the consequences of that are going to be very real in front of us and so I do expect conversations to happen again.”

From LinkedIn
  • For January: How are you enjoying your new position at CAA?

“It’s been wonderful. I’ve always been an admirer and supporter of the Children’s Action Alliance and got to see them up close when I worked at AHCCCS and when I worked for Governor Napolitano. I saw how vital their work is. I feel very privileged to be able to work with this team and to work for this mission in the interests of kids and families here at home.” 

  • Is there anything not covered in the first seven questions that you would like the readers to know about the CAA and its legislative agenda for this year? Please explain. 

January Contreras: “If there are folks out there that want to know more, we invite them to look at our website. (https://azchildren.org) If there are partner organizations out there who want to be involved in some of the issues that we’re working on, we invite them to reach out to us. We definitely have an interest in ensuring that we’re covering statewide and building those relationships so that every part of the state is part of the efforts for kids and families and in the policy arena.”