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Advocates discuss ways to share ideas with legislators

Legislative Conference
Alice Woldt and Sr. Sharon at Legislative Conference

Leaders from Catholic Charities of Spokane (CCS), the Washington Association of Churches (WAC), the Lutheran Public Policy Office (LPPO) and the Washington State Catholic Conference (WSCC) gave updates on proposed legislation and an overview of changes in advocacy in presentations at the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference Jan. 30.

The pervasiveness of electronic media means that’s how most constituents communicate with their elected officials, said Scott Cooper, director of parish social ministries with CCS.

“People still write letters, make phone calls, sign petitions and visit legislators, but the weight has shifted to electronic and email communication,” he said.  “It requires less time than writing a letter or phoning, so elected officials assign less weight to email than phone calls, which have less weight than a letter, which has less weight than a visit.”

Building a relationship with an official is key, he said.  He often emails, but has been to Olympia and met legislators.

Because legislators track the number of emails, they have impact, said Paul Benz of LPPO.

Scott suggested thanking legislators “when they vote the way you requested, letting them know you are keeping an eye on what they do.  Persistence and patience for the long haul are important.”

Understanding how media influence perceptions of problemsand options for solutions is important, said Fig Tree editor Mary Stamp.

Dominican Sister Sharon Park of the WSCC also pointed to the importance of contacting the media, given the influence it has on decision making and voting.

Malcolm Haworth, coordinator for the conference, suggested building relationships with legislators by helping with their election campaigns.

From helping people seeking help, Sister Sharon and Donna Christensen of the WSCC said Catholic Charities is aware of the intersection of policy and need.

“Many issues, on which the faith community has worked for 30 years to assure delivery of social services to the vulnerable, face being cut from the budget this year and next because of the budget deficit,” said Sr. Sharon.

“We see more people in food banks and shelters.  Catholic Charities knows the impact on the neediest,” she said.  “We have worked for years to protect General Assistance to the Unemployable (GAU), which faces cuts again this year.”

The Governor’s second proposed budget would restore programs if there are additional revenues, she said.

Donna added that “any of us could face a catastrophic medical problem, lose our assets and be unable to work.  If someone on GAU loses benefits, it also affects agencies and churches that serve GAU clients in housing programs or shelters.”

“It means churches may need to pick up more, but churches can’t pick up some things, like the basic subsistence GAU offers or health care,” said Sr. Sharon.

Volunteer Chore Services (VCS), initiated in 1981, was cut completely in the first budget.  VCS keeps senior in their homes, with volunteers doing household chores.  Sr. Sharon said if seniors cannot stay in their homes, it costs the state substantially more if they have to go to a nursing home.  Catholic Community Services, which have the state contract to connect volunteers with seniors, has developed software to manage volunteer and recipient information. 

In addition to chores, Volunteer Chore Services helps people manage finances and find legal and financial advice from retired lawyers and financial advisors.

The Housing Trust Fund—reduced from $200 million to $100 million in 2009—has been spent, leaving nothing for 2010.  Sr. Sharon suggested people invite legislators to visit transitional housing, homeless shelters and food banks, so they see the impact of cutting programs such as Basic Health Care more than half.

“People with mental health, drug and alcohol problems have no voice unless we in the churches advocate for them,” she said.  “We know the stories and can make a difference by telling them to legislators.  Faith motivates us, but we also need to know costs and facts, so we can speak to those who only look at money.”

Alice Woldt, transitional executive director of the WAC, told of lifting up Gospel values by building coalitions to have influence.  She spoke of the power of individuals in the faith community when they organize—providing a table for letter writing during coffee hour.

“As revenues fall and costs increase, fewer can pay for health insurance, increasing the demand for basic health coverage,” she said.  “We seek to prevent an erosion in quality schools, affordable health care, services to elderly and environmental cleanup.”

For information, call 206-625-9790.