Friday night’s takeover of the state Senate gives pundits much to ponder. Who gained at whose expense? What happens now?
But while the dust settles on a potentially deadlocked legislature, one fact is clear. The children of Washington got trampled when a group of Senators conspired to ram through the entire state education, health care, and social services budget without even a nod to public input. Kids are the new roadkill.
How quickly things change. Last year, members of the Senate’s “Roadkill Caucus” stood up for kids and successfully blocked cuts such as taking away Apple Health for Kids health coverage from 27,000 children. In fact, most members of that caucus voted against brutal cuts to kids in the budget that prevailed by the narrowest of margins.
When pillars of democracy such as transparency and public notice are knocked down, the shock is felt by everyone. Voters lend their trust to their elected representatives. When that trust is broken, the fissures weaken the foundation of our democracy. But the impacts of this abuse of both power and process are not felt equally by all. Those who have less access to the political process are hurt the most. This includes children, people of all ages with low incomes, communities of color, people with disabilities, and others who depend on transparency to voice their opinions.
This wasn’t a spontaneous uprising. The conspirators didn’t make their budget proposal public until minutes before the vote. The clandestine planning and execution of the coup resulted in no opportunity for public input.
The budget that passed by the slimmest of majorities (25-24) after midnight Friday was a devastating blow to families with children:
• Hungry kids would be even hungrier with the loss of an entire food assistance program for 14,000 families. The State Food Assistance Program provides an efficient safety net for low income legal immigrants, many of whom were invited to America to escape toxic conditions caused by the U.S. government in their homeland.
• The children of 4,000 working parents would lose their slots in child care, preschool, and after-school programs. This assistance has been a road out of poverty for hard working moms and dads.
•Kids would also shoulder the burden of drastic cuts to public health, family planning, and basic needs assistance to the poorest families in the state. This means fewer immunizations, more unplanned pregnancies, and more kids growing up in homeless shelters.
These cuts will increase the number of Washington children growing up in poverty. And, the already shocking income and wealth gap faced by children of color will only be wider and harder to close.
How will our children possibly be ready to be the workers, employers and leaders of the future? How will our children fare when we weaken their families and dim their hopes? It’s not too late for lawmakers to chart a better course for our state’s next generation. In fact, 24 Senators and a majority of the House of Representatives have already shown there is a way to protect kids.
Here’s what’s needed in both the short and long term:
In the short term, at least one of the 25 Senators who participated in the Friday night’s tricks needs to reconsider his/her vote and help protect kids in any final budget. Democrat or Republican, one lawmaker can be a hero for the children they represent. And, with one in five kids already living in extreme poverty, kids needs legislators to stand with them, not against them.
In the long term, lawmakers should steer out of the destructive cycle of budget cuts by enacting long term tax reform such as ending unwarranted tax breaks and taxing earnings from capital gains. Politicians get multiple opportunities to change our laws; kids get only one childhood. It’s too precious to end up as roadkill.
This opinion piece originally appeared in PubliCola.
Photo (above right) by Tegra Stone Nuess.