Terry_Brooks_KYAThis post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier-Journal on February 13, 2016. Read it online here

Budgets – be they for a family, a business or a state – are a statement about values and priorities. What do you invest in and what don’t you? That alone makes building Kentucky’s biennial budget a tough proposition. Add to that the fiscal constraints that confront Gov. Bevin and legislative leaders, and you have an even tougher proposition.

And yet, I am approaching this budget session with optimism when it comes to children. I believe that Gov. Bevin, Speaker Stumbo, and President Stivers share two common threads.

First, each has a demonstrable track record of being a champion for kids. Second, each understands that investments for children save money now and in the long run. That means there are several common-ground, common-sense budget provisions that can make a positive difference for Kentucky’s kids and create wins for local economies and the state budget.

Kentucky’s working parents win when they have access to high quality and affordable child care. We appreciate the 2014 General Assembly restoring harmful cuts that were implemented in 2013 to the Child Care Assistance Program. More working families will be positively impacted if we extend eligibility to additional families that struggle to cover the cost of child care while they work.

We also need to ensure child care providers receive adequate reimbursement to continue serving children in the Child Care Assistance Program. The child care community is working to recover from the harmful cuts in 2013, and now is the time to continue prioritizing this successful program that promotes work. This will increase workforce capacity and inject more earnings into the economy.

Kentucky’s vulnerable children win when the child welfare system keeps families safely together by prioritizing family preservation programs and kinship care. We know that shifting child welfare dollars to prevention and early intervention programs that strengthen families will save the expensive costs of removing a child from the home. We also know that when children must be removed, they experience less trauma and can recover better when they can be placed with family members. Lifting the moratorium placed on the Kinship Care Program by the Beshear administration and providing extra support to kinship families, such as access to training or respite care, will help those grandmas, grandpas, aunts and uncles have the skills and resources they need to be successful in raising kin children.

Kentucky’s children, working families and the economy win if we enact a state refundable Earned Income Tax Credit. A state EITC would allow families to keep more of their hard-earned income in order to better meet the basic needs of their children. The federal EITC is one of the most successful measures of keeping children out of poverty and is often used as a temporary support for families. And, we know families don’t put money received from an EITC in off-shore accounts. They spend it in their local communities at businesses for things like tires, school supplies and clothes for their children. Every $1 invested in an EITC provides about a $2 return on investment in local economies. It’s time our elected leaders pass a state EITC to provide an immediate relief to working families.

While I have a lot of hope for these and other priorities, there are some outstanding questions when it comes to the budget.

We don’t yet know how the proposed cuts to the state budget by Gov. Bevin will play out, and we don’t know how preserving programs within a given department will be prioritized. We encourage our elected leaders to ensure the overall emphasis on fiscal responsibility doesn’t result in a reduction in crucial preventive services – such as the HANDS home visiting program – that are fiscally responsible for the long term. If programs like these are cut, our state will likely spend more dollars on far more expensive intervention services later on. Such questions need to be answered as the budget process moves forward.

Kentucky’s kids are lucky to have leaders who care about their well-being and who seize opportunities to create wins for those young people, their families, local economies and the state budget. We ask Gov. Bevin, the House and the Senate to prioritize budget items that will make a profound impact on our commonwealth’s most vulnerable citizens, our children. Those are values and priorities around which we can all rally.

Dr. Terry I. Brooks is executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates.