Kids coalition wins victories during tumultuous state legislative sessions
By George Hohmann For the W.Va. Press Assoc.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The “Our Children, Our Future Campaign to End Child Poverty” coalition counted several pieces of legislation as victories in the just-completed sessions of the state Legislature, but organizers of the grassroots legislative movement think politics sent other bills to defeat.
Stephen Smith, a member of the coalition’s Steering Committee, called the lawmaking “incredibly tumultuous.”
Example: In early January the coalition wanted to maintain or increase funding for a variety of child and family support programs. But the regular session had hardly begun when Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin unveiled his budget, which proposed $980,272 in cuts to those programs.
During the 2014 session, the coalition — comprised of more than 170 organizations around the state, from church groups to service agencies — lobbied hard for a restoration of the funding. The money wasn’t restored until March 14, when the Legislature met in special session to set the budget. And it won’t be a done deal until Tomblin signs or vetoes the legislation.
As for the overall 2014 legislative session, the coalition’s stated goals were to improve kids’ health and fight child poverty in West Virginia. The plan centered around a statewide call to action on a clearly defined legislative agenda determined through public meetings and committee review. Started in 2012 by kids’ health and anti-poverty advocates, the campaign — operating under the banner, “Our Children, Our Future,” — developed from a loose coalition of groups including unions, chambers of commerce, faith groups, lawmakers, and kids and families themselves. Smith said the coalition agreed early on to work only on issues considered winnable and impactful.
• The coalition’s other top agenda items for 2014 and the Legislative outcome of each:
Increase the state minimum wage: Passed.
“Move to Improve,” a proposal aimed at increasing kids’ physical activity during school hours:
• Died in House Education Committee.
Create a “Future Fund” with some severance tax revenue: Passed.
• Reduce meth lab activity by requiring a prescription for pseudoephedrine: Died.
Smith said, “West Virginia families have spoken and the ball is in the Governor’s court now. The legislative victories — Future Fund, minimum wage, the early childhood budget, and so on — are a great start. But now we need the Governor to sign the bills and make them law.”
Other legislation backed by the coalition and the outcome of each:
• “Quality Homes, Quality Jobs Act,” giving municipalities and counties more tools to re-develop vacant or dilapidated properties: Passed.
• Prohibit the use of food-stamp benefits to buy sugary drinks: Died.
• “Pregnant Workers Fairness Act,” requiring employers to make accommodations for pregnant employees: Passed.
• Increase the tobacco tax: Failed.
In a prepared statement issued March 14, Smith said, “This year, we learned the power that everyday citizens have when they unite across their differences… We also learned that we must continue to grow that power.
“On some issues, we saw legislators choose lobbyists over kids, because they thought it was the politically smart thing to do. Through community outreach and education, it is our job to show legislators in the coming year that supporting our kids is the politically smart thing to do.”
The coalition is planning a strategy retreat and leadership training sessions April 11 and April 12 in the Eastern Panhandle.