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Rick Wilson: Child-friendly agenda in Legislature should appeal to both parties, and has in the past

One of the most exciting things I’ve been involved in for the last couple of years is the Our Children Our Future campaign to end child poverty in West Virginia.

In just a little bit of time, this campaign has grown into a coalition of over 170 organizations and many more individuals all over the state. And we’ve won some big ones, from raising the minimum wage to improving child nutrition and physical activity to restoring funding for key programs to expanding health care and reducing prison overcrowding.

It’s been pretty hard to believe. In a good way.

However, since the Republican tsunami in the 2014 legislative elections, many people have asked me and others involved in the campaign whether the party is over, no pun intended.

It’s a good question, but the short answer is no.

There’s no doubt that some of our champions on the issues are either no longer there or are no longer in leadership positions. And some of our partners are anxious about possible new legislation that might come down the pike.

But let’s face some facts.

First, while leaders like outgoing Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Tim Miley and others have been exceptional, not every Democratic legislator elected since 1932 has exactly been a heroic tribune of the people.

Second, I’m not aware that increasing the number of poor children in West Virginia is part of the official Republican platform. Last year, House Republicans played a role in restoring funding for family programs in the wake of a veto by the governor.

I’ve been around long enough to remember that benefits for vulnerable families got a big boost under a Republican governor, only to be slashed by a Democratic successor. More recently, one of the strongest voices for restoring child care supports for working families when these were endangered was Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Maloney in 2012.

Third, our legislative successes were generally passed by an overwhelming margin on both sides of the aisle. None were split along strict party lines.

Fourth, yes, there can be rivalry in the Capitol, but not all of it is between parties. Sometimes it takes place between chambers and between members of the same party.

Finally, we are hopeful that the issues that make up our 2015 platform are fiscally responsible and can be the basis for some common sense consensus. Here are some of our top issues:

n Providing a secure funding stream for key programs. The last few years have been a bit like the movie Groundhog Day. Each year, low-cost but high-impact programs dealing with domestic violence, support for children who have been the victims of crime, etc. have been slashed only to have the funding restored after a bruising battle. Republicans and Democrats cooperated last year to fix it for the time being. We hope they come up with a long-term solution this year.

n Expanding early childhood education. There is a ton of evidence that investments in programs like voluntary in-home family education pay off hugely in fewer problems and better outcomes down the road. According to Nobel winning economist James Heckman, each dollar spent brings a 7 to 10 percent return per year. We’re talking better grades and earning potential, better relationships and social skills, and less crime and violence and need for incarceration, and better health outcomes.

A 2005 Marshall University study led by Dr. Cal Kent, who has served as a Republican on Huntington’s city council, found early childhood education to be “a very positive factor influencing the future economic development of the State, probably more than any other effort currently underway.”

n Common sense juvenile justice reform. Promoting public safety, cutting costs to taxpayers, and reducing the impact of the state on the daily lives of citizens are pretty bedrock values. Does it really make sense to spend over $100,000 to lock up a kid for truancy when less expensive community based programs can help kids and families get back on track?

n Protecting the quality of drinking water. Anyone who lived through last year’s Freedom Industries chemical spill “Aqua-calypse” probably won’t want to do that again. Nobody likes drinking poisoned water. Or using public money to clean up a privately created mess.

n Preserving Medicaid and CHIP. Governor Tomblin’s 2013 decision to expand Medicaid helped over 150,000 working West Virginians to finally have health care, a step that has changed and saved lives. That’s also a step that Republican governors have taken in states like Arizona, Iowa, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Two-time Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney expanded Medicaid as part of his Massachusetts health care plan when he was governor of that state. Leaders like this did so because it was a winner all the way around.

Those are the top five priorities as voted on by campaign members. Other platform issues are revenue positive in both the long and short term and would combat substance abuse, reduce health care costs to taxpayers and citizens, discourage teen smoking and raise needed revenues with a tobacco tax, prevent child sexual assault, and promote public health.

The first question asked (by both parties) at the Capitol is: How much does it cost? This year’s platform actually creates more revenue (through a tobacco tax and savings from juvenile justice reform) than it spends (on early childhood programs, etc.). And that doesn’t even begin to count the long-term savings of things like early childhood programs, or Family Resource Networks that generate more than $9 for every $1 the state puts in.

Put simply, investing in kids saves money short-term and long-term.

So, yes, it’s a new landscape, but life goes on. We look forward to continuing to work with state leaders across the political spectrum this year and in the years to come to make West Virginia a great place for kids and families.

Rick Wilson, director of the American Friends Service Committee’s West Virginia Economic Justice Project, is a Gazette contributing columnist.

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