Children's Causes Shape Agendas in State Capitols from Child Care to Foster Care, Lawmakers Push Issues That Make thisYear of the Child

Article excerpt

Take a look at the activity in the hallways of the 50 state capitols and one strong theme emerges: kids. From child care to foster care to health care, legislators are scrambling to boost spending and revamp the way their states help children.

In statehouses, it seems, 1999 is the Year of the Child. New York, for instance, is considering the biggest one-year increase in child- care funding in its history.

Arizona's governor wants to double the size of the state's child- abuse-prevention program. And California may add a child-support czar to go after deadbeat parents. The driving force behind many such plans is the desire to protect kids from being hurt by welfare reform. But other forces are converging, too - a new national emphasis on early-childhood development, business executives clamoring for better education, and the sudden influx of money from tobacco-company settlements. Targeting children is "a politically acceptable way to help poor families," explains Cynthia Craft, editor of StateNet Capitol Journal in Sacramento, Calif. "No one would suggest that the child go out and get a job." And bipartisanship runs strong on these issues because "Democrats always bring up the human services and Republicans have to counteract their image as bullies by exposing their warm, fuzzy sides." Indeed in Arizona, where the late conservative icon Barry Goldwater still looms large, Republican Gov. Jane Dee Hull is proposing to add $10 million in child-care subsidies for working families and $3 million to Healthy Families, a child-abuse- prevention program. She would also revive the state's prenatal-care program at a cost of $1 million. And she's not alone: Legislators are rushing to revamp the foster- care system by shortening the time it takes to get the state's 7,000 foster children into permanent homes. One lawmaker even wants to create a new license plate with proceeds going to child-abuse-prevention programs. Why now? But it's not just a desire to show their "warm, fuzzy" sides that's driving legislators to help children. For one thing, like many states, Arizona will soon start getting its annual check from the tobacco companies - $100 million for each of the next 25 years. Also, the notion that the first few years of a child's life are crucial to later success has gained national prominence - and acceptance across the political spectrum. Forums such as last year's so-called White House conference on the brain have put great emphasis on this field of early childhood development. In the end, actions such as boosting child care fit nicely into a conservative philosophy, says Carol Kamin, head of Children's Action Alliance, an advocacy group in Phoenix. …