Monday, April 28, 2008

Virginia’s Budget Woes: Explanation or Excuse?

By Pauline Wagner, SALT
Be patient, keep up your efforts, and wait for the economy to improve. That was the message from northern Virginia legislators to social justice advocates gathered at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Arlington on April 19. The annual Richmond Legislative Wrap-Up session—cosponsored by Social Action Linking Together (SALT), Virginia Coalition to End Homelessness (VCEH), Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE), and Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations (V ACOLAO)—drew 10 state legislators and about 75 other participants.
Following an opening prayer by Rev. Gerry Creedon, St. Charles pastor and Chair of the diocesan Peace and Justice Commission, and remarks by Jeff Caruso, Director of the Virginia Catholic Conference, SALT Coordinator John Horejsi observed that none of SALT’s priorities for the 2008 legislative session was enacted. Among them were a pilot program proposed by SALT and VCEH to help working families move from homeless shelters to rental housing and a modest increase proposed by SALT in benefits to parents and children on Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).
TANF recipients have had only one 10 percent increase in their benefits since 1985, Horejsi said, and their benefits are now less than a quarter of the federal poverty level. Yet the TANF caseload is down 58 percent since 1995, while federal TANF funding to Virginia has remained constant. As a result, the state should have ample federal money available to fund SALT’s priorities, Horejsi argued, even given the tight state budget. He asked the audience to imagine the public outcry if Social Security recipients had received but a single cost-of-living adjustment in their benefits since 1985; yet year after year on this issue, SALT’s advocacy on behalf of Virginia’s neediest families falls on deaf ears, he said. “What more can we do?” Horejsi asked the legislators.
VCEH’s Sue Capers asked the same question with respect to the pilot rental assistance proposal. She noted that thousands of poor and unemployed Virginians are turned away from homeless shelters every year, in part because the shelters are housing families with working parents whose income is insufficient to afford the high cost of rental housing.
In response, legislators praised SALT and the other organizations for their advocacy efforts and encouraged them to persevere. Del. David Englin, who had patroned the pilot rental assistance program in the House, noted that Catholic social teaching has much in common with the values of his Jewish faith. Advocacy is valuable in educating legislators to those values, he said, even if the current budget climate makes it difficult to fund worthwhile initiatives.
Del. Brian Moran agreed. Quoting John F. Kennedy as saying “a rising tide lifts all boats,” Moran encouraged advocates to continue lobbying for social justice issues so that, when the economy improves and additional state revenue is available, the legislators will be familiar with the issues.
Del. David Albo and Sen. George Barker both noted that the 2008 General Assembly did manage to approve increased funding for education, mental health, and Medicaid. Sen. Barker complimented SALT on its willingness to tackle difficult issues, the breadth of its bipartisan outreach, and its persistence.
Sen. Chap Petersen told the advocates that he takes personal inspiration from the passage in Luke 4:16-21, where Jesus says that the Lord has anointed him to bring glad tidings to the poor and to proclaim liberty to captives. Although he believes in appropriately punishing those who break the law, Petersen said, Virginia over-incarcerates its citizens, at great expense. The high cost of this approach diverts funding from basic human needs, he said.
Del. Vivian Watts described her efforts on behalf of a bill proposed by SALT and CURE to remove the lifetime ban on TANF benefits from persons convicted of a drug offense, once they have served their sentence and have been reunited with their children. Jean Auldridge from CURE noted that the ban ends up punishing the children for their parent’s mistake, even after the parent has paid her debt to society. Del. Watts attributed the bill’s failure both to its additional cost, although slight, and to the fear of some legislators of being accused of being “soft on crime.”
Delegates Al Eisenberg and Adam Ebbin appeared in support of our issues, though their remarks were brief. Delegate Margaret Vanderhye said that her own faith guides her on social justice including our rental assistance proposal, affordable housing and environmental issues.
Echoing earlier comments from VACOLAO’s Andres Tobar, Senate Majority Leader Richard Saslaw described efforts in the Senate this year to prevent the passage of harmful legislation directed at immigrants. Sen. Saslaw also explained legislative efforts to reform payday lending practices in Virginia.
Horejsi concluded the session by thanking the legislators for their participation and the advocates for their attendance. SALT and the other organizations will be back at work next year on the same issues, he said, with renewed emphasis. For example, he said, the desperate need for a TANF benefit increase has attracted the attention of AARP, many of whose members are struggling to raise grandchildren on limited, fixed incomes. If adequately funded, such “child-only” TANF benefits would enable more children to receive care from a loving relative at a lower cost to the state than foster care or group homes.
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This is to share an article covering our RICHMOND WRAP-UP by Social Action Linking Together (SALT)--and it's co-Sponsors. The annual forum focused on what happened during the Richmond General Assembly Session. Ten legislators from Northern Virginia discussed how well the General Assembly responded to social justice and human services needs facing Virginia and to answer questions posed by participants. This was an excellent opportunity to learn first-hand what transpired in Richmond. For more information, contact SALT Coordinator, John Horejsi at jhorejsi@cox.net or visit the SALT web site at www.S-A-L-T.org.
Social Action Linking Together---SALT is a network of advocates who are bringing the social and economic justice teachings of the Catholic Church to bear on public policy and legislation, especially at local and state levels. SALT’s active membership totals more than one thousand persons of faith.
We thank Pauline Wagner, SALT member, for this article and DeeDee Tosranoski, Bruce Neilson and Bob More for their collaboration.
Please e-mail John Horejsi at jhorejsi@cox.net if you have any questions about this event.
With thanks.
JOHN HOREJSI
SALT Coordinator
Vienna, VA 22181-3248
jhorejsi@cox.net
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