Milk Party Presses Kids' Agenda With New State Leaders

By: The News Service of Florida
By: The News Service of Florida


Advocates for children are starting to press incoming state leaders on an agenda for boosting state services that help children, but may have a daunting task in a year beginning with a budget shortfall.

A group of children’s activists calling themselves the “Milk Party,” which drew nearly 15,000 Floridians to its rallies for children during the 2010 election season, is working with Gov.-elect Rick Scott and legislative leaders to push improvements for children’s services in the 2011 session.

“I have met not only with Mr. Scott but with the new House Speaker and the new Senate President, all of whom say they are willing to work on these issues,” said David Lawrence, Jr., president of the Children’s Movement of Florida, the Milk Party’s official name.

Lawrence, retired publisher of the Miami Herald, said he’d told Scott, Senate President Mike Haridopolos and House Speaker Dean Cannon about the need for “high-quality, best-practice skill building for parents, high-quality, best-practice mentoring programs, fixing Florida’s pre-k program for four-year-olds, screening and treatment for children who might have special needs, and health insurance for children” – the group’s top five priorities.

“I’m certainly distinctly aware of the budget challenges we face in this state,” Lawrence said. “We’re not out of the Great Recession – we still have tough numbers, tough challenges. But I don’t think any of us should be willing to use that as an excuse for not making progress on behalf of children.”

Lawrence and other advocates point to Florida’s poor performance on key indicators of children’s well-being. In the most recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, for instance, the state ranks 35th in the nation and at the bottom in spending on pre-kindergarten programs and children’s health insurance.

But just this week state economists revised Florida’s revenue forecast and are now projecting a shortfall of at least $3.5 billion as lawmakers go into the budget-writing year.

Still, as the Crist Administration becomes the Scott Administration, policymakers who have focused on children’s services say the gains of the past four years shouldn’t be ignored – and that many are cost-effective. Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, who has chaired the state’s Children and Youth Cabinet, touts its data-sharing among state agencies and collaboration among agency chiefs.

“Obviously, the work with data-sharing – it’s never been done in the country before,” said Kottkamp. “So this is something we’ve done in the Children’s Cabinet that I think is a model for efficiency for government in a larger scope…and to accomplish that was no small task.”

Former state representative and children’s advocate Loranne Ausley of Tallahassee, who co-sponsored the 2007 bill creating the Children and Youth Cabinet, acknowledged the panel “has not accomplished as much as we’d hoped,” but urges Scott to make it a “major priority.”

Both Kottkamp and Ausley say the panel’s connection among policymakers is a policy unto itself. The cabinet has included the secretaries of the departments of Children and Families and Juvenile Justice, the surgeon general, education commissioner and directors of the Agencies for Workforce Innovation and Persons with Disabilities. Ausley points to how the agencies worked together on outreach for Florida KidCare, which has struggled to connect with eligible families due to budget constraints.

“It’s absolutely vital for agency heads themselves to sit on the (Youth and Children) Cabinet,” Ausley said. “It can really save money if there is real – and I mean real – communication between agencies.”

Another member of the panel is the state’s chief child advocate. In the Crist Administration, that’s been former lawmaker Jim Kallinger, who has spearheaded Florida’s “Explore Adoption” campaigns that have found homes for 12,000 children, drawn national attention and earned $17 million in federal bonus money.

“I think we have a lot to be proud of,” said Kallinger, “and we need to let people know…Of course, there’s a lot of work to do, but we need to let people know the good work that we’ve done – not only the people in general, but let the transition team know, let the new governor know, all the good stuff that we’ve done and kind of encourage them to carry on the torch.”
Kallinger has applied to stay as chief child advocate.

Lawrence, another member of the youth cabinet, has been frustrated with its budgetary and other limits.

“I think the jury is still out on its effectiveness, its value,” Lawrence said. “But it could have great value. I think the governor’s heart and soul were in the right place, but did we make a lot of progress for children? The honest answer is no.”

During the 2010 regular session, cuts to Healthy Start and Healthy Families, programs that work to prevent problems associated with premature birth and child abuse, were softened only with federal stimulus money. Now, as lawmakers eye the state’s health and human services budget, hoping to chop off $1 billion, those programs and more may again be fighting for survival.

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