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Coalition to end child poverty makes its voice heard at Capitol

Goerge Hohmann West Virginia Press Association

March 11, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.VA. — Organizers estimate up to 800 people from across West Virginia, including busloads of children, came to Charleston this session to support legislative proposals aimed at ending child poverty.


“Kids and Families Day at the Legislature” had something for everyone, from free T-shirts to discussions with lawmakers about pending legislation to a photo with Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. Throughout the day, kids were kept involved with activities ranging from face painting to crafts to learning an exercise with a math theme.


The event, held in February, was organized by the “Our Children, Our Future Campaign to End Child Poverty,” a coalition of more than 155 groups. The coalition has an 11-item legislative agenda that ranges from increasing the minimum wage to requiring more physical activity during the school day.


The Coalfield Development Corp., a Wayne-based organization that builds affordable housing and provides on-the-job-training for lower-income individuals, brought 13 employees, including two construction crews, to the Capitol.


Brandon Dennison, Coalfield Development’s executive director, has said, “A home is the foundation to a good quality of life.” The group is working on legislation that would increase funding for the West Virginia Affordable Housing Trust Fund and make it easier for municipalities to create land banks.


After signing in at the registration table in the rotunda and picking up distinctive blue “End Child Poverty” T-shirts, the group headed for the office of state Sen. Ron Stollings, whose district includes a portion of Wayne County.


When Stollings walked into his office and learned that the group was from Wayne, he had them come right in. Stollings lent a sympathetic ear as each person in the group expressed hopes and concerns about Wayne County.


Stollings, a doctor, chairs the Senate Committee on Health and Human Resources. He told his constituents that he is particularly interested in several bills on the “Our Children, Our Future” agenda, including:


* Legislation that would require a prescription to purchase a cold medication used to make methamphetamine.


* A bill that would prohibit the purchase of sodas with food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “There are 12 teaspoons of sugar in a Coke,” Stollings said. “Oral health is a big issue.”


Later in the day, both bills were approved by Stollings’ committee and sent on to the Senate Judiciary Committee for further deliberations.


Stollings also told the visitors he was interested in raising the state pop tax, with brings in about $14 million a year for West Virginia University’s medical center. Dennison pointed out that an increase would hit the visitors in their wallets because the construction crews tend to drink a lot of pop.


When Stollings said he also wants to increase the tax on tobacco products, crew member Josh Napier objected. “I use snuff,” he said.


Stollings confirmed that the cost of snuff would increase if the state tax goes up. He said the hope is that a higher tax will discourage people from becoming users of tobacco products.


Crew Chief Larry Endicott pointed out that Napier was the only person in the room that uses tobacco products. “We are all paying health care premiums that help pay for your medical costs,” he said.


Napier objected, saying that he is healthy.


Stollings looked Napier in the eye and said, “You’re not going to be as healthy as people who don’t use tobacco. You will have more health issues.”


Dennison pointed out that Stollings and other legislators deal with difficult issues like this every day.


Stollings said the give-and-take with his constituents was interesting. “I’m pleased to have you guys up here and will listen to your concerns,” he said.


As the visitors from Wayne filed out of Stollings’ office, another group from the coalition filed in to make a pitch for increasing the minimum wage.


The Wayne group made its way downstairs to the Governor’s Reception Room, where Steven Rotsch, Gov. Tombin’s photographer, lined everyone up for a picture with the state’s chief executive. Tomblin welcomed them and shook hands with most of them.