Students Speak Up In Jefferson City for Working Poor

THE CATHOLIC KEY

The sixth grade class of St. Patrick School in Kansas City, north, meant business when they came to press lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 575, a measure that if passed will provide the first state earned income tax credit to working poor families.


It was no field trip to the state capitol building.

The sixth grade class of St. Patrick School in Kansas City, north, meant business when they came to press lawmakers to pass Senate Bill 575, a measure that if passed will provide the first state earned income tax credit to working poor families.

Using a 60-second, 12-sentence presentation that the students of Patty Haney had written themselves — and illustrated with 13 posters that the students had drawn themselves — the students in one day talked individually to nine of the Missouri Senateīs 34 members, including all the top Democratic Party leaders, and their representative in the Missouri House.

They heard six senators including the top leaders promise their support for the bill. And they even heard one senator with reservations about the measure — Sen. Sarah Steelman, R-Rolla — promise that she would at least vote to bring the bill out of the Senate Ways and Means Committee to the full Senate for debate and action.

The billīs sponsor, Sen. Joe Maxwell, D-Mexico, said he was personally moved by the studentsī interest in the bill, which is awaiting action in committee.

"You canīt imagine what this meant to me personally," Maxwell said. "It gives me great hope."

The students chose to work on Senate Bill 575 as part of a year-long pilot project to enhance the teaching of Catholic social doctrine in diocesan elementary schools. The project has been spearheaded by Tom Turner, executive director of the Bishop Sullivan Center social service agency, and by Jerry Miller, professor of economics at Rockhurst Universtiy.

The students took turns reading their brief script to each senator:

"God made everyone equal. God wants everyone to have a decent life. Some hard-working people canīt live a decent life. How can we change that? By changing the rules.

"Everyone that works gets paid. Everyone that works pays taxes. The state of Missouri is thinking about giving a tax credit to the working poor.

"We are all part of Godīs family and some of us need your help. Weīre here to help you make your decision about this new law. Please vote for a little help for people who are working hard and still having a tough time."

The bill as proposed would grant Missouri working poor families who qualify for the federal earned income tax credit an additional state income tax credit equal to 20 percent of the federal credit.

The General Assemblyīs Committee on Legislative Research has estimated that the measure, if it became law, would redistribute about $140 million a year from the state treasury to working poor families.

To hear the studentsī presentation, Maxwell left the floor of the Senate where, ironically, an amendment to a bill allocating the stateīs tobacco lawsuit settlement funds was being debated. That amendment, he told the students, would have used some of the tobacco money to provide an across-the-board state income tax cut to all Missouri taxpayers.

"Seventy-two percent of that will go back to people making $100,000 a year," Maxwell told the students. "If we can give back to the wealthiest families, then we can give back to the poorest families."

After hearing the studentīs presentation, Maxwell went back to the floor to get two of his colleagues, Sen. William L. Clay Jr., D-St. Louis, and Sen. Ken Jacob, D-Columbia, to hear the students.

Clay urged the students to keep pressing the issue.

"With a little prodding from groups like this, maybe we can put it on the front burner," he said.

The students then went to the office of Senate Majority Leader Ronnie DePasco, D-Kansas City, who told them that the bill stood a solid chance of passing the full Senate if enough members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee would vote to advance the bill to the Senate floor.

"Nobody could vote against this bill. Why would you? If it gets to the Senate, it will pass," he said.

But DePasco told the students that the $140 million cost makes it difficult for some members of the Ways and Means Committee to support.

"We arenīt talking chump change," he said. "Itīs a good bill and we think it can be passed. But I want you to know that itīs going to be an uphill battle."

After hearing the students, DePasco invited Steelman to listen to the students.

Steelman admitted she hadnīt decided how she would vote on the bill. "I support the concept," she said. "Itīs the cost thatīs the problem."

Steelman attempted to turn the tables on the students, asking them where they would find $140 million to fund the tax relief bill.

But class member Kristen Farrell said their focus was on the poor, not on stateīs $16.5 billion budget.

"I think God would want everyone to have a decent life, so they should get a tax credit," Kristen said.

"Itīs hard to argue with that," Steelman said.

The students presented the senateīs top officer whose district includes St. Patrickīs Parish, with 472 signature cards from adult parishioners who support the bill. Senate President Pro Tem Edward Quick, D-Liberty, thanked the students and told them that the bill would be one way to address problems caused by welfare reform three years earlier which forced many Missourians to take low-paying jobs.

"Some of those people who moved (off the welfare rolls) do not make a livable income," Quick told the students, noting that many of those working people must still receive food stamps and private assistance from church-based food pantries in order to feed their families.

"Someone who works every day should be entitled to more than qualifying for food stamps," Quick said.

"When we made that move (to limit the time people could remain on welfare), we didnīt finish the job," he said. "We solved one problem, but we still have a problem that needs to be solved to make people whole. The passage of this bill will help move them one step forward."

The students also got a promise of support from State Rep. Bill Skaggs, D-Kansas City, whose House district also includes St. Patrick Parish.

"Weīre on the same page," Skaggs told the students.

They also got a thumbs-up from Sen. Harry Wiggins, D-Kansas City and chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

"The bill has my complete support," he said before commending the students for speaking out.

"You are doing something today that a lot of citizens wonīt do — to solicit government to do what you think is right," Wiggins said. "If you canīt stand up for life — born and unborn — what use is it to stand up for anything?"

Sen. Stephen Stoll, D-Festus, also pledged his support.

"My parents taught me to look out for people who have less," Stoll said. "That is part of what government needs to do."

Sen. John Schneider, D-Florissant, didnīt tell the students how he would vote on the bill, but told them they were doing "the Lordīs work."

Schneider then invited the students to pray with him in his office. After Schneider offered a prayer, the students together said their own prayer for social justice which they had written as a class:

"Dear God of us all. Your breath has given life to each and every one of us. You made us unique and special in different ways. We know you want all of your people to live a decent life and to treat each other in a respectful manner. Please guide us in understanding the churchīs teachings on social justice and help us make an impact on the lives of others. Amen."

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Kevin Kelly. "Students Speak Up In Jefferson City for Working Poor." The Catholic Key (Feb. 20, 2000).

Reprinted with permission of The Catholic Key the newspaper for the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Copyright Đ 2000 The Catholic Key


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