Voices’ Blog

Budget Hearings: A Lesson in Civic Engagement

Posted:  -  By: Cassie Price

Yesterday’s chilly temperatures failed to deter a large number of Virginians from attending the General Assembly budget hearings in Richmond, Radford, Sterling, and Virginia Beach. In Richmond alone, more than 80 citizens came out to make their three-minute presentations to a panel of a dozen state senators and delegates.

As the newest member of the Voices staff and a rookie to budget hearings, I was fascinated by this exercise in civic engagement. For just over four hours, lawmakers listened attentively and empathetically to the deeply personal, often heart-wrenching stories of their constituents, who advocated for funding for a range of needs, including Medicaid expansion to provide health care coverage to low-wage workers, school inclusion for children with intellectual and physical disabilities, and resources to address the state’s opioid epidemic.

I was particularly struck by the number of people—roughly three-quarters of the speakers—who advocated on behalf of children’s issues. Here were the mothers, fathers, grandparents, and neighbors who are the voices for Virginia’s children.

Voices for Virginia’s Children and many of our nonprofit partners were there to amplify the chorus, with Voices providing talking points for several presenters.

Championing stronger systems of care to support pregnant and parenting women with substance use disorders, Voices policy analyst Allison Gilbreath called upon policymakers for “easier access to treatment and home-visiting services and the extension of health insurance for new mothers beyond 60 days postpartum.

“Services for pregnant women, mothers, and babies can be more effective and efficient by working across silos. These efforts in Virginia depend on inter-agency collaboration through … the continuation of the Children’s Cabinet … and by creating a state-level inter-agency work group on trauma-informed policy and practice.”

Voices board member Annie Kasper requested additional resources to support a kinship guardianship program for children and youth who live with their relatives when they can no longer live with their parents. Kinship care, as opposed to foster care, Annie explained, often mitigates the trauma a child experiences by keeping the child connected to family. It also increases the likelihood of long-term security and permanency for the child.

“When foster children are placed in the care of relatives, we need to assure they have the same access to services afforded their counterparts placed in homes with non-relative foster parents,” Annie said. “Currently family members taking children who would otherwise go to foster care do not receive any financial support or services from the state.” This can place a tremendous financial burden on many families, she explained.

Toward the end of the budget hearings, Voices executive director Margaret Nimmo Holland spoke about finding a long-term solution for re-funding the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), known as FAMIS in Virginia.

“We heard just yesterday from a mom whose child was born with a complete cleft lip and palate and currently has FAMIS,” Margaret said. “She cannot afford to go buy other health insurance for her child, and his expensive medical treatments need to continue.”

Margaret asked Virginia policymakers to press their federal counterparts to commit to the long-term re-funding of CHIP, thereby enabling some 68,000 children and 1,100 pregnant women in Virginia to retain their health coverage. If Congress fails to re-fund CHIP, Margaret asked Virginia policymakers to fill the gap with state general funds.

After listening to these presentations and approximately 80 others, I left yesterday’s budget hearings with a better understanding of the complex challenges of budgeting, given the many issues facing Virginia’s children and adults, and a newfound respect for our democratic system of government.

The budget hearings were just the beginning of Voices’ 2018 advocacy work. Learn how you can join us in advocating for Virginia’s children in the upcoming General Assembly by checking out our tools for advocates.








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