This op-ed was originally posted in the Courier Journal on January 17, 2020.

By Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates

In 1978, “The Farmer’s Almanac” first published a list of “folk wisdom” from Dick Goddard about signs of an approaching bad winter. More than four decades later, it is still one of the most popular features of that publication. You’ve seen that list or a similar one — thicker than normal corn husks; woodpeckers sharing a tree; the early migration of the monarch butterfly; thick and numerous Autumn fogs; an unusual abundance of acorns. The list goes on and on.

While I find those lists fascinating, I never remember to check back in the spring to see whether the claims were reality or simply promises. After all, “the proof is in the pudding.”

And so it is when it comes to kids and Frankfort. During any campaign and during any political season, every elected official claims to be a champion for children and families. Let’s be honest — that is an inviting platform on which to run. The challenge for and obligation of voters is to check back on those claims and to ascertain if the “proof is in the pudding.”

During the last several years, there is no question that the General Assembly has demonstrated its commitment to youth in very real ways. Legislation to build a thoughtful foundation around strengthening school safety, seminal reform to the child welfare system, and groundbreaking protections against youth tobacco use including e-cigarettes are illustrative of Frankfort actions that carry real impact.

As the 2020 session begins, the General Assembly and Governor Andy Beshear can provide more “proof in the pudding” when it comes to children through their action on the biennial state budget.

I get it — Kentucky faces a budgetary landscape short on revenue and long on challenges. That means that it is even more vital that the budget must become an incubator for new ideas and a lever for innovation. Neither the governor nor the General Assembly can solve Kentucky’s core issues with one budget. But, that one budget can be a catalyst to better days for Kentucky’s boys and girls.

While I would never suggest that the ideas that follow are some kind of comprehensive or all-inclusive list of catalytic ideas, I am going to be watching with expectation that we see a 2020 budget that encompasses this kind of thinking.

That will mean a Kentucky budget that supports families’ kitchen table economics through enacting a refundable state Earned Income Tax Credit and beginning to think smartly about addressing addiction and its impact on families by expanding Family Recovery Courts.

It means a budget that supports young children and the workforce through increasing funding for the Child Care Assistance Program and full-day kindergarten.

It means we really begin to embolden our schoolhouses — not just through equitable per-pupil funding but by also putting our money where our mouth is in supporting provisions of the School Safety and Resiliency Act (SB 1, 2019). It’s about recognizing the need for wrap-around services through a robust fiscal commitment to Family Resource and Youth Service Centers, which play a vital role in ensuring student success.

If we want a catalytic budget, then we have to dive into real child welfare supports — be that supporting kinship families, increasing supports for professionals who respond to child maltreatment with forensic services, investing in the workforce to recruit and retain quality workers, and strengthening investments in child maltreatment prevention and family preservation services in order for the commonwealth to successfully implement the federal Family First Act.

It’s a bold expansion of Kentucky’s Health Access Nurturing Development Services (HANDS), which has shown impressive results for young families with increases in adequate prenatal care, lower rates of preterm births and low-weight births, and lowered incidence of child abuse.

It’s also giving young people the imperative supports they need to quit tobacco and e-cigarettes through cessation and prevention programming.

A catalytic state budget can address the unacceptable levels of racial disproportionality in the juvenile justice system through implementing creative and place-based diversion programming.

The 2020 session has just begun and yet before you know it, the final gavel will fall and a budget for Kentucky’s children and families will be in place until June 30, 2022. That means vigilance on the part of every Kentuckian who cares about kids.

In all probability, those pending winter weather predictions will soon be forgotten. We just don’t really check on whether the implications of the depth of a muskrat’s burrow or the height at which hornets build their nests come to fruition.

But this budget business is far too serious and far too seminal for Kentucky’s children. The investments or lack thereof will, in fact, bear fruit. And Kentucky’s kids are counting on you to ensure that there is real “dollars and cents” proof in the pudding of our elected leaders’ commitments.