Clare Sanford, New Horizon Academy and Minnesota Child Care Association, introduces Charles Sutton, Senior Outreach Director for Sen. Smith,  and Cheniqua  Johnson, Staff Assistant/Intern Coordinator for Rep. Ellison.

By Marie Huey, Public Policy and Advocacy Coordinator

The Minnesota State Legislature was off for Easter/Passover Break this week, so Ann Kaner-Roth Policy Hour turned its focus to national issues. Guests for the April 3rd Policy Hour were Charles Sutton, Senior Outreach Director for U.S. Senator Tina Smith, and Cheniqua Johnson, Staff Assistant/Intern Coordinator for U.S. Representative Keith Ellison.

Omnibus Spending Bill

Both presenters highlighted the recent passage of a federal spending bill. The bill passed with bipartisan support and contained many provisions for early childhood and school age care. Funding was increased for the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG), Head Start, Part B, Child Care Access Means Parents in School program (CCAMPIS) and 21st Century Community Learning Centers. For more details on the programs and funding, check out this analysis from New America.

Many of these programs originally faced proposed cuts from the administration. While neither the Senator nor Representative received everything they wanted in the bill, they were relieved and encouraged to win increases on many important items.

Minnesota Priorities

Back at home, Ellison and Smith focus on a variety of issues that are important to their constituents.

U.S. Representative Keith Ellison

Higher Education is a priority for Representative Ellison. He works on college accessibility and affordability, including debt-free college. Johnson noted that a diverse student population (with regards to income, race, experience, age, etc.) means affordable, flexible child care is often an important part of the equation. Because several institutions of higher education are located in Ellison’s district, he also coordinates with state efforts on the issue.

Ellison supports Medicare for All, and is a champion for Dreamers, which is a very relevant issue in his diverse district. With regards to supporting children and families in the earliest years of life, Ellison takes a holistic approach. He seeks to address multiple factors including increased wages and safe spaces.

U.S. Senator Tina Smith

Senator Smith works on a variety of policy areas related to early learning as well. Sutton highlighted her recent work on child care. Smith kicked off a statewide tour of child care with a roundtable discussion at Think Small in February. Since then, she and her staff visited programs around the state and held listening sessions in cities including Detroit Lakes, Rochester, and Harmony. Minnesota is currently facing a child care shortage. The tour has provided opportunities to explore innovative solutions to the shortage and to hear from people affected by it. Sutton noted that the shortage looks different in Greater Minnesota than the metro, and that might lead to different solutions. The business community is interested in being involved to some extent. The tour has made clear the dual challenge that child care is expensive for parents but also generally not well-paying for providers. Infant care is especially scarce. Many providers find it challenging to provide care and run a business. When it comes to child care, Smith sees three main components for increasing accessibility: affordable care, high-quality providers, and programs that meet the unique needs of families (hours, cultural preferences, etc).

One of Smith’s first actions in D.C. was to sign on to the Child Care for Working Families Act as a cosponsor. She is also co-chair of the Afterschool Caucus.

How to Engage and Advocate

In response to questions from the audience, Johnson and Sutton shared tips on advocating effectively. Johnson reminded people to write clearly! Representative Ellison and his staff want to respond to constituents, but it’s hard to do that if all they have is an illegible signature. Name, address, and zip code are essential.

For any one issue to become a priority, congresspeople need to hear about it continuously, from many constituents. Johnson emphasized that now is the perfect time to advocate. With new money coming to the state in this spending bill, constituents have the ability to advocate for how to use it. People can also meet with Ellison or his staff at his office in Minneapolis.

Sutton encouraged people to call Senator Smith’s office with any and all comments. She receives regular updates on what people are calling about and how often. He said it is helpful when groups organize together and invite the senator or her staff for a meeting, either in Minnesota or D.C. She has staff all around the state. It’s always helpful to tour a program, business, or nonprofit. Facebook and Twitter are additional ways to connect with both Smith and Ellison.

If you’d like to connect with one of our presenters, their contact information is below:

Charles Sutton, Senior Outreach Director, Senator Tina Smith

Cheniqua Johnson, Staff Assistant/Intern Coordinator, Representative Keith Ellison