Gov. Tomblin and the Legislature had an impossible challenge this year: How to weather $34.9 million in cuts without hurting our most vulnerable children?
As the House and Senate meet in conference committee this week, the pieces are in place to pass a budget that meets that challenge. Through creative cost savings and bi-partisan cooperation, the governor and leaders of the House and Senate are indeed protecting our most vulnerable children. They should be commended.
Here's how they did it.
This success starts with Gov. Tomblin, who put many of his plans into motion more than a year ago. Shortly after his election, Gov. Tomblin saw two clear paths for achieving long-term savings for the state, and he seized them: education reform and prison reform.
On education reform, by putting more power into the hands of local school officials, extending the school day, and cutting inefficiencies, the governor has not only found cost-savings, but also put more of our money to work educating our kids. Like any good piece of legislation, nobody got everything they wanted -- but the governor and leaders from both parties stuck with it.
With prison overcrowding, the governor again worked in a bi-partisan, common sense manner to curb long-term spending on prisons and increase public safety. These changes have the added benefit of freeing up future dollars to reach kids early and keep them out of the prison system altogether.
The education and prison bills have gotten all the fanfare, but they are just the beginning.
Just as important, the governor pledged in his State of the State to protect funding for the child care benefit. If those cuts had gone through, 1,400 working parents would have lost their child care support -- forcing them to either quit their jobs or leave their children in substandard care. Gov. Tomblin knows how important it is to keep families working, and he found ways to draw new federal dollars to cover this gap.
The House and Senate played crucial roles too.
Last week, the House found additional savings to restore Family Violence Prevention cuts -- so that our most vulnerable kids continue to get the help they need. The cuts to these programs -- the WV Children's Trust Fund, Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Programs, and Child Advocacy Centers -- would have amounted to less than $400,000. That's less than 1/100th of 1 percent of the state's budget. That may not sound like a lot, but it sure matters to more than 2,000 families who would have been without services if those cuts had gone through. The Senate and governor can follow the House's lead on this.
Likewise in the Senate, we have seen the West Virginia Feed to Achieve Act, a bill that helps give hungry kids access to food. This is another creative example of helping kids without hurting our state's bottom line. The Feed to Achieve Act creates a mechanism for private individuals and businesses to contribute to school breakfast and lunch programs, in ways that will also draw down new federal dollars.
No budget is perfect. There are budget items that we would have liked to see have more investments, but governing is the art of compromise. That is what makes this accomplishment so notable. In a time of unprecedented rancor and partisanship in Washington, West Virginians are showing that we can reach bi-partisan solutions that protect our children in two ways: by investing in our most vulnerable kids today, while keeping our fiscal house in order for tomorrow.
McKay is the state coordinator of Prevent Child Abuse West Virginia. This commentary was also submitted by Emily Chittenden-Laird, executive director of the West Virginia Child Advocacy Network; and Tonia Thomas and Sue Julian, coordinators of the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence.