Tag Archives: Kansas Legislature

Why do big tents so often fall down?

Over the past several months, I’ve had the opportunity to work with some really committed advocates–super smart and dedicated people who are working extremely hard to protect their clients and the programs that serve them, in a climate of drastic budget cuts and an eroding social contract.

It’s soul-sucking work, and we’re losing many, many more battles than we win.

Lately, though, some of us have felt like we’re really fighting the wrong battle. Or, more accurately, battles.

It’s not just the old “divide and conquer” problem–the fact that social service advocates are vulnerable to intra-skirmishes that distract us from the real enemies and make it easier for those same opponents to play us against each other.

It’s also that we deliberately avoid taking on the real struggles, and even sometimes miss noticing them altogether, because we’re trying to contain debates that we can really only hope to dominate if we act collectively.

Here’s how it looks in real life:

In Kansas, advocates spent all last year fighting against budget cuts in different program areas–mental health, public education, child welfare, senior services. And all year, the Governor and some legislative leaders hinted that their sights were really set on a policy battle far larger and more fundamental to our state’s well-being: the revenue foundation that shores up (or doesn’t) all of those programs and far more. For the most part, they have not encountered much effectively organized opposition. From my conversations with at least some advocates, it seems that many hoped that not antagonizing the Administration on that issue would, somehow, preserve some access and influence that they could use to defend their work and serve their clients.

So, in essence, we’re sitting on the sidelines while our fates–for the next several years–are decided.

Because, of course, if the Governor and his allies are successful in eliminating the state income tax, they won’t need to legitimate their budget-slashing goals at all: there quite literally won’t be enough money to fund any of these programs, and so advocates will be fighting over crumbs.

If the failure to build a sustained, strategic, progressive coalition to take on these more global, structural issues was just a logistical one (getting people together across distance), or just jurisdictional (getting people to set aside their competition with each other), or even just a problem of capacity (people not having enough resources to take on a fight this big), then I feel like we’d know better how to start addressing it.

After all, those are the kinds of challenges that we overcome in our organizing every day.

But the real reason that building this kind of “big tent” is so hard, I think, is that too many awesome advocates think it’s a bad idea–that taking on these common concerns dilutes their influence and compromises their positions. And so we have to overcome not just inertia but entrenched resistance, and we’ve got to do it without being able to offer any guarantees that their concerns aren’t, in fact, totally well-founded: this Administration absolutely does box out those who oppose them.

But advocacy isn’t about tallying the numbers of wins v. losses.

It’s about how we can build movements that shape how people see themselves, and their worlds, and about how we can change even the debates about the policy challenges we confront. It’s about being in the arena, even if we emerge somewhat bloodied.

And so we can’t afford to sit out the really, really big fights, and we can’t presume that going it alone is ever safer.

There are some battlefields on which we just have to be willing to make a stand.

And there is solace in solidarity.

Go Ahead, Raise My Taxes

It’s a good thing I’m already pretty comfortable with controversy.

Because this one is even unpopular with my own husband, who’s rather notorious for being SUPER easy to get along with (convenient, hunh?).

I am completely okay with paying more taxes.

I’ve actually told a financial advisor that I don’t appreciate his advice about how to shift investments to minimize our tax “burden”. I once delayed buying clothes for my daughter until after the sales tax holiday had ended. And I got into a long discussion with my oldest son in the Lego aisle of the toy store about why sales taxes are included in the total cost of the purchase, and why we have to account for that in deciding how big of a set we can get for his birthday.

This year, with all of the discussion in the Kansas Legislature about eliminating the income tax and “replacing” it with an increased sales tax, I’ve only increased my resolve about the inadequacy about my current tax rate. To me, paying taxes is an investment in the kind of society I couldn’t hope to buy for myself–safe roads, good schools, wonderful libraries, vibrant public parks–and also a reflection of the success my family didn’t necessarily earn but somehow still enjoys.

Because, in a truly progressive tax system, paying more taxes should be a mark of achievement.

How is that a burden?

And my final reason for being totally okay with my tax responsibilities? It’s a sort of extra license to complain, I guess. I certainly don’t agree that only those who are net taxpayers have a right to participate in collective governance–democracy shouldn’t be ‘pay-to-play’–but I do feel quite justified in articulating my opinions about how public funds are spent, because some of those public funds are mine. How would I have time to advocate effectively if I was busy trying to find ways to weasel out of my financial obligations to the commons? And, yes, it does feel like weaseling to me.

Of course I wish that I had more disposable income.

I just don’t wish that nearly strongly enough to walk away from my principled belief that there are many goods in our society that would not be nearly so “good” if not shared in common.

I’m proud to play a part, albeit smaller than I wish, in funding that commons.

So, not in my name, Kansas Legislature. Not in my name.

Remember: We’re the Sunflower State

This Sunflower hangs on a gate at my house, as a reminder of what we must be.

These are tough times, Kansans.

The economy isn’t great (although we ended last year with a healthy balance, thanks to some pretty drastic funding cuts whose effects will be felt for generations).

We’re in the middle of redistricting, which is ugly in the best of circumstances and potentially explosive with a polity as divided as ours today.

We face battles in this new legislative session around Arizona-style “show me your papers” legislation, raids of the Children’s Initiative Fund, an attack on our revenue foundation, and more cuts compounding the cuts.

It’s a good thing we’re the Sunflower State.

Sunflowers were adopted as a symbol of the women’s suffrage movement by Kansas suffragettes, I think mainly to ensconce their movement fully within the social mainstream. It has been used in advocacy campaigns repeatedly since, according to my research, because sunflowers can take the heat.

And they always face the sun.

And that’s what we need today.

As advocates, we’ve never felt more heat. The stakes are high, and the threats are real.

But we know what our vision looks like, too, and that’s the promise, the sun, towards which we must set our sights, unwilting, unbending.

Thankful, Thankful, Thankful

This is one of my favorite annual posts to write.

I have so much, really, for which to be thankful, and it’s an important exercise, this thinking through the abundance of good things in my life.

This year, especially with the relatively homeward-focus of the last several months, my list of those to whom thanks are owed is perhaps a little more personal than last. But there are great joys in the wider world, too, even though, certainly, there are more problems and pains there as well.

I’d love to hear what you’re thankful for this year, too!

  • My kids, of course, but not just in a “they’re my kids” kind of way. Truly, these particular little ones are such a delight: the way that Sam’s mind works (even when he can’t sleep because there are “too many thoughts!”), the love and joy that spills out of my oldest daughter (even to people at the grocery store), the support role that my youngest son plays so kindly, and so well, the tremendous gift that is a baby sister. Every single day, they teach me something about living, and parenting, and I’m so glad that we have so much time, still, to learn together.
  • The Sunflower Foundation: I’m thankful not just because it’s a wonderful group with which to work (even though I pinch myself regularly that I get paid to think and talk about advocacy with these folks), but also because I really believe in the investments that they’re making in nonprofits in our state, and in the difference that their work will leverage on behalf of vulnerable Kansans. They are courageous and smart and fun, and I’m so glad that they’re on our side.
  • My flower garden: So, right now, it’s not much to look at, but I know that it’s there, tucked away in the ground, and that, come spring, I’ll have bulbs popping up and perennials to tend. At one point, a garden was my strategy place; I remember coming up with the idea of a prayer vigil to put pressure on the Kansas Speaker while training the hyacinth beans to climb the gate. Now, it’s a place where the kids and I can work together, or I can be alone in the early mornings or late evenings. It’s something to look at while I wash dishes at the sink or sit with the kids on the patio. And it’s a visible reminder that my dear husband loves me very much, laid out with his hands, watered regularly according to his timers, and carefully mowed around every week in the summer.
  • Some good court decisions (meaning, of course, that I agree with them!). Thanks, in particular, SCOTUS, for not humoring Kris Kobach’s ongoing attacks against immigrant students. And thanks to the federal court ruling that being gay doesn’t mean that you can’t rule fairly on issues involving gays. We’ve got a lot of strains in our relationship, especially you 9 and I, but there were a few bright spots so far this year, and they have not gone unnoticed.
  • My students: Do they have any idea how much it warms my heart to get an action alert from one of them? How I pick up the phone to call Congress in glee, uber-delighted that they are already making an impact on advocacy? Or how I’d really rather have a conversation about one of their optional readings (That they read! Seriously!) than win the lottery? Or how truly kind it is that they don’t call me on the fact that I start every week of policy class saying that this is my favorite topic of the semester? So thankful.
  • Cold-brew iced tea: Who has time to boil water? No one wants to see me on coffee-strength caffeine, but a little iced tea in the morning makes preparing 8 pancakes every day a bit easier. This stuff is genius, and I am truly grateful that scientific minds lent their mental energy to this particular endeavor. Now, let’s get on the malaria-resistant mosquitoes. And a cure for cancer.
  • The public library, ours in particular. I love Miss Beth, who knows my kids’ names and always has a reading selection. I love the fact that I’m not made to feel guilty for incurring late fines–they appreciate the money. I love how excited my kids are to go somewhere that’s free, and public, and how they’ve learned about the importance of the commons. And I love having new books to entertain the kids on cold and rainy afternoons. Hurray for taxes at work!
  • Our neighborhood: I’m thankful for a neighbor who drove us to the doctor in his 4-wheel drive during last winter’s blizzard, for the built-in babysitters across the street, for the communal kid-vehicle storage in our garage, for the fact that, when I can’t find my husband, he’s almost always in our neighbor’s backyard. I’m thankful that my kids’ best friends live within sight of my front porch, and that they don’t have to knock when they run down the street. I’m thankful that we’re building a community, together.
  • Moderates in the Kansas Senate: I’m hesitant to even put this one down, even though I am so, so, so thankful for those Republicans and Democrats in the Kansas Senate who resisted the worst of the policy proposals in 2011, because I’m afraid that they won’t hold in 2012, and that they may be gone by 2013. But I am thankful for them, enough to put aside money for their reelection campaigns, and I’m committed to showing my gratitude in public, so that their voices of reason and compassion are not overlooked, and then silenced.

    What blessings are you counting this year? What do you hope can be on your “thankful” list in 2012? How will you show your gratitude during this thankful season?

  • Like a Horror Movie: Voter ID Laws…Coming After You

    Restrictive Voting Laws=Way Scarier than this Guy

    You want to be scared on Halloween?

    Really, really scared?

    Like “a threat to all you hold dear and potentially the end of life (okay, democracy) as we know it” scared?

    Then think about this:

    In Kansas, and, increasingly in other states around the country, politicians have used the completely ridiculous (would be laughable if not for the end result) allegation of undocumented immigrants voting to push through voter identification laws that will seriously harm voter participation of low-income and marginalized populations, primarily through their effects on nonprofit and community-based groups’ voter registration and Get-Out-the-Vote work.

    Because when these laws are fully implemented (which, in Kansas, won’t be until January 2013, largely because some senators felt guilty and so postponed it until after the 2012 elections), conducting a voter engagement drive in the community–at a festival, on a street corner, on a public bus, as people are leaving a rally–will be nearly impossible. Every new voter will have to prove citizenship upon registration, and who carries copies of their birth certificate with them (to be submitted with the registration)?

    There are obvious obstacles to actual voting for some of these same populations, too, particularly that the rules for obtaining a free photo identification (yes, there absolutely are U.S. citizens without photo ID) are convoluted and involve considerable exertion on the part of the (by definition) indigent would-be voter.

    Those barriers are real, and they fall disproportionately on low-income individuals of color, particularly the very youngest and very oldest in the electorate.

    But what scares me the most is the way that these laws will completely take nonprofit organizations–social service agencies, health centers, senior centers, ethnic associations–out of the voter registration and civic engagement business. We know that we’re particularly good at bringing these often-marginalized groups into the electoral process, after all. We build on our relationships, connect people to the issues that affect their lives, and walk alongside them to ease their first voting experiences.

    We don’t do it nearly often enough, but, when we do, we make a difference–on individual lives and on how elected officials view those with whom we work.

    But that’s all going to go away.

    And what’s even scarier, really?

    The way that such a totally invented risk, for which there is absolutely no evidence and which defies all logic to anyone who can imagine even any facts about immigrants, can frighten away the allies who should have stood with us, creating this specter of fraud that silenced too many voices. I mean, really? With voter participation dismally low among U.S. citizens, undocumented immigrants are supposedly risking felony convictions and permanent deportation to make their mark on our democratic process?


    We’re at the point in this terrible saga when the huge blob, or scary ax-murderer, or ghastly ghoul is running for us, and we’re all kind of cowering behind the half-open door.

    And we know enough about how these things turn out to know that we’ve got to come up with a different plan.

    First, we need to register as many people as we possibly can before these laws kick in. Second, we need to educate our communities about these laws and what they will mean, and we need their help documenting the very real ways in which U.S. citizens are affected. Then, we need to take that information, along with a value-based appeal (justice, freedom, and democratic participation, anyone?) to legislators who knew better but voted for these horrible laws in the first place.

    They can be undone.

    We need a legal strategy that attacks the laws’ undue infringement on our core constitutional right to vote, a legislative plan that mounts the strong attack that was missing initially, and an organizing effort that recognizes this threat as what it really is:

    Paving the way for all of the threats that are to follow, once the demographic shifts that could reshape the social contract in this country through electoral transformation have been thwarted by systematic disenfranchisement.

    It’s time for the hand to reach up from the grave, or the girl to step out from behind the curtain (you know that I don’t watch many movies, so fill in the blanks here).

    We can write a different ending.

    But we have to open our eyes.

    Instate tuition: lessons in implementation

    Every year for the past five years, I have fielded several requests from immigrant students who are attempting to enroll in college under the provisions of Kansas’ instate tuition law.

    Every year, I have to help them advocate for themselves to ensure that the law is implemented as it should be, and every year I am reminded why social work advocates’ work is far from over when the legislation is signed. The problems students encounter are pretty routine now–a new admissions officer who hasn’t been properly trained, a rogue somewhere in the university system asking for unnecessarily intrusive status information, breakdown in communication between different entities within a university system. For the most part, Kansas colleges and universities have done an excellent job implementing the law, and, with relatively few exceptions, the failures we see today are the result of inadequate resources/oversight or misinformation, not intentional policy sabotage. But, to a student who’s just trying to enroll in college like his/her peers, and who’s afraid and overwhelmed and confused, these failures can mean the difference between academic success and frustrated resignation.

    So that’s where social work advocates can help. I coach students on the questions to ask, on how to answer intrusive inquiries, on the documentation to provide, on where to appeal adverse decisions. When necessary, I make some phone calls to people with the authority to resolve the problem. And I try to use each of these situations as a learning opportunity for how we can make the process smoother and more student-friendly every year.

    In honor of the kids who are brave enough to point out when something’s not right and all of the public servants who have worked hard to get it right, I share these lessons learned in policy implementation, over the past five years. Keep in mind that this particular case of implementation is probably slightly more problematic than most, given both the highly politicized nature of the legislation (and, therefore, public scrutiny) and the unfamiliarity of the agents in question (university admissions folks) with the subject matter (undocumented students, with whom they had had virtually no prior contact). Add in the fear on both sides of the consequences of getting something wrong, and it’s rather remarkable we haven’t had more problems. But, still:

  • Build strong relationships with the ultimate arbitrers. I worked closely with the Kansas Board of Regents on the legislation, and, together, we were totally committed to the policy’s success. We identified likely problem spots together, and we collaborated on documents that would advise those in charge of implementation of the steps to comply with the legislation. We kept in very close communication for those first two fall semesters, and I still call them sometimes when I can’t resolve a problem at the university level.
  • Be public in your oversight of the implementation. The Board of Regents allowed me to come to the first meeting where admissions officers were advised of the new law, and they not only announced their strong support (setting a firm signal that compliance was expected) but also introduced me as an advocate who was available to answer questions but would also be helping students and families navigate the law. I believe that seeing me and knowing that I would communicate regularly with the KBOR helped keep some folks honest in those early years.
  • Communicate with your target population of beneficiaries. We used Spanish media, high school counselors, and traditional and guerrilla marketing techniques to spread awareness of the legislation, and we included contact information for those encountering implementation problems. The fact that I still get phone calls and emails from students, two years after leaving that job, is testament to the depth of those relationships and students’ trust that a ‘no’ didn’t necessarily mean ‘no’.
  • Train people to self advocate. Whenever possible, I advise students on how to resolve the problem themselves, rather than just making a call to ‘make it go away’. Granted, I’m dealing with highly articulate and bright college-bound students whose capacity for self-advocacy is high, but they’re also 18-year-old kids, rather scared about the sensitive nature of their immigration status. They’re almost always effective, though, once we’ve rehearsed how they’re going to handle the situation, and, in the process, the university learns to see them in a different light and they start school empowered.
  • Keep records. I note every time a student or parent contacts me with a complaint: which school, name of the individual admissions officer, nature of the complaint, any documentation of it. This has helped to identify patterns, including some specific ‘problem’ individuals, and strengthened our hands on the few occasions when we had to ask for assistance from regulatory bodies.
  • Reward successful implementers. We have bent over backwards applauding individuals and institutions that have been successful in promoting the legislation, recruiting students, and training personnel. We do free publicity, of sorts, for them, talking them up with colleagues and in the community. Carrot and the stick, you know?
  • Never, ever, ever give up. I’m not afraid to show up at an admissions office with a copy of the legislation in my hand and a student by my side. I’ve had legislators whose districts include the university make phone calls asking why the problem can’t be resolved. I even sat for three hours once waiting for a high-ranking university official to give a student and me a meeting. As in all kinds of advocacy, sometimes securing implementation means proving oneself tenacious enough and loud enough that you can’t be ignored.

    What examples of implementation do you have to share–both successful and problematic? What has worked for you in this advocacy? What lessons would you share?

  • Facebook and the Kansas Minimum Wage

    My cynical side believes that the increase in the Kansas minimum wage finally passed this year in large part because legislators wanted to appear to do something good for people in poverty in a budget year when they were going to make fairly drastic cuts in social services, education, and health care. After all, relatively few workers earn the state minimum wage, and there was not much strong opposition from organized business interests.
    Still, it was a significant success after years of unsuccessful advocacy on this issue, and it’s also significant that the breakthrough came with new strategies for organizing progressive activists. And it suggests that Twitter and Facebook, in particular, hold real promise for reenergizing flagging campaigns, mobilizing supporters to take unprecedented action, and providing the critical difference, in terms of amount and type of advocacy, that can push an issue over the hump. I like the fact that the organizer in this story is clear that social networking applications are only one tool to assist us in accomplishing the core task of any organizing campaign–connecting with people around an issue they care about–but that they can be an innovative and successful part of an advocacy strategy.

    If you’ve used Facebook, Twitter, or other social networking tools in your policy advocacy work, please share your story. If you were involved in the campaign to raise the Kansas minimum wage, did you connect via social networking? Did you find those tools helpful?

    Facebook and the Minimum Wage

    The Kansas Budget Deficit Battle (Cliff’s Notes for Social Workers)

    I am not a fiscal analyst. I do not pretend to be an expert on budget matters. Most of the policy issues on which I worked most intently were not big budget items, and so my engagement in the appropriations process was really only peripheral. Our instate tuition issue got wrapped up in the omnibus process in the 2004 session, so I sat through hours of budget negotiations between the House and Senate committees that year, and I worked some on school finance legislation, a huge part of the entire state budget, as it impacts Limited English Proficient and at-risk children.

    This year, I have honestly been paying more attention to the Kansas state budget than I did when I was working full-time as a lobbyist; the budget battles impact the practicum organizations of a majority of my students, and I have been closely following the proposed cuts for public education in my role as a Board member of Kansas Families for Education. All of the name-calling and sky-is-falling back and forth have prompted me to think about what social workers need to understand about these difficult economic times, and about the ways in which states can respond to them. We’re not likely to be the best ‘numbers people’ in the room, but we do bring an important understanding: these numbers are really about people, and people’s lives, which makes them anything but academic. It is from that perspective that I share these thoughts about Kansas’ current budget woes, and the fight around them.

    First, social workers need to remember that, to mangle several famous quotations together, “the news of this fiscal crisis has been greatly exaggerated.” NO, I’m not saying that we don’t have a serious deficit, or that real people aren’t going to be seriously hurt by the cuts that ensure. My points are these:

  • When did you ever hear a state legislator say to a social work advocate, “We’re flush with money right now, so we’re going to increase funding for programs that serve (fill in the blank: low-income families, people with disabilities, hungry children)”? They don’t. So we can’t wait for the budget to improve before we start making our case–it will never be good enough for them to want to give us what we know our clients need.
  • And, second, to some extent, this fiscal crisis, at the state level, has been exacerbated by intentional policy choices by state legislators, who also have the power to make it much better, if they would make decisions like decoupling the state and federal tax codes (meaning that the tax breaks enacted at the federal level wouldn’t reduce our state revenues) or rolling back or even just postponing some of the tax cuts enacted in recent years. Retired state representative Ray Cox (R-Bonner Springs) was fond of calling such tax increases “tax restorations”, since that term more correctly reflects the fact that we have decimated our own revenue base with a series of major tax cuts, particularly during the ‘good times’ of the 1990s.

    But, the reality is that, right now, social work advocates are battling to try to minimize the damage, and that the advocacy that we need to do to put revenue enhancements back on the table and to make social services so valuable that they will be sacred is going to really come into play next year, not in the next two days. 

    Some thoughts, then, about how to best prepare ourselves for these perennial budget battles, with hopes that these lessons will even serve us well in these lean years.

    1. States have to balance their budgets; unlike the federal government, they can’t run continual deficits, which means that we have to acknowledge the need for tax ‘restorations’ to the extent that our state’s needs are now outstripping our fiscal capacity.

    2.  The portion of the budget over which social service advocates have to battle is a relatively small one: for fiscal year 2009 (which ends on June 30th, 2009), 51% of the state general fund went to elementary and secondary education and another ~13% to higher education. When you consider our mandatory obligations under Medicaid and the costs of just keeping a government running, not to mention corrections costs (which, we social workers know, could be decreased somewhat by better investment in people at risk), we’re left with about 15% of the budget, or approximately $900 million, which sounds like a lot, but when you divide it among programs for older adults, people with disabilities, low-income energy assistance, childcare subsidies, community mental health centers, and the dozens of other programs funded through SGF, you’re not left with a lot. Argument number #2 for increasing the size of the pie!

    3. We’re no longer talking about ‘trimming the waste.’ We hear this a lot, right, about social services–that we can supposedly absorb these cuts because it just means working more efficiently? The reality is that, at this point, institutions have already trimmed as much as they can. The cuts being considered today (the Senate version would cut an addition $138 million from the $13 billion budget; the House’s latest effort was a $247 million cut that has been delayed because of massive opposition from Democrats and moderate Republicans) would mean layoffs of employees, possible furloughs, cuts in classroom expenditures, elimination of some social service programs entirely (I got an email yesterday that the Respite Care and Family Subsidy Programs are two likely to be eliminated if these cuts go through), and increased waiting lists for others. There’s only so much we can cut (Argument #3 for looking at revenue restorations..are you convinced yet?).

    4. We have to stop fighting each other. Too often when I was in the Kansas Legislature, i would hear advocates for one vulnerable constituency make the case, implicitly or explicitly, that their population was more worthy than another (“kids are the future”–so what are you saying about older adults? or “people with disabilities need help through no fault of their own”–so what are you saying about people in the corrections system?). We can’t do this–there are enough voices attacking the need for social services altogether without us adding our voices to that chorus. That’s why I always advise students to answer the “so where should we get the money?” question like this: “As the state legislator, it’s your job to figure out how to meet all of the state’s obligations to its citizens. I know that these are not easy decisions, but the benefits of investing in (fill in the blank for your program/constituency) are worth it.” The moment you say, “maybe you could cut xzy,” you have earned yourself an enemy who should, rightfully, be your ally.

    I’m including a link to an article by a great statehouse reporter, Scott Rothschild of the Lawrence Journal World, that outlines some of the current debate. The House is expected to take up the budget today, and legislators need to hear from social workers that drastic cuts are unacceptable. We need to put revenue enhancements, like the decoupling and the postponement of the franchise tax cut, back on the table. I talked with my state representative yesterday and, somehow, knowing that I did my part might make the next year’s budget a little less bitter.

    Here’s the number to call to reach your state representative. Hopefully you’ll get a busy signal the first time you try:


    May 6, 2009 LJW article on state budget