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Patty Murray’s push to fund nutrition and child care

Left to right: Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, state Rep. Debra Lekanoff and Nisqually Tribal Chairman Willie Frank III.
Laurel Demkovich, Washington State Standard
Left to right: Lt. Gov. Denny Heck, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, state Rep. Debra Lekanoff and Nisqually Tribal Chairman Willie Frank III.

As Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray works on writing a budget for the entire country, she’s keeping two issues affecting kids here in Washington top-of-mind: nutrition and child care.

Both issues have been priorities for her since she took office 31 years ago. During a visit to Olympia on Wednesday, the Senate Appropriations Committee chair – and resident senator in tennis shoes – talked about her efforts to use her powerful position to make sure they’re funded.

Murray is now the longest-serving Democratic senator and third in line for the presidency as the Senate president pro tempore.

She spent her time this week in the state capitol talking with state lawmakers about what support they might need from the federal government and posing with the new Billy Frank Jr. model statue, which will be placed in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., once it’s finished.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You’ve been working recently on ensuring that the federal Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children remains fully funded at a federal level. The Agriculture Department warned in December that the program, which provides nutrition assistance for pregnant women, new mothers, babies and young children, is facing a $1 billion shortfall if Congress does not act. What happens if funding is not allocated, and is there anything that can be done on a state level to address this?

Republicans in the House are trying to cut $800 million from the program, which means we will not have enough to fund the families that qualify. If they get their way on this – and I’m fighting them every step of the way – then our state Legislature is going to have to figure out either how they deal with waiting lines, who’s going to qualify with the limited funds or come up with additional funds. None of those options to me are satisfactory. It’s one of my top priorities. I just will not accept this. This is a national priority and has been for 50 years, and we have an obligation to fund it.

How will Washington benefit from another federal nutrition program, the new Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer program set to launch in 2024?

Summer EBT is a program that I started working on probably 10 years ago or so. Low-income kids get school lunch during the year, but all of a sudden summer hits, and for three months, they get nothing. So there’s this huge gap, and it affects learning. I can tell you as a former early childhood educator, that it affects your learning if you don’t have nutrition. It is just wrong that in our country, we say for three months, you don’t eat.

We developed a program called Summer EBT where families could get $40 a month per child for three months on an electronic card so that kids would get some kind of nutrition over the summer months. We did it as a pilot program, and it was really successful. At the end of last year, we passed it as a national program. This summer, Washington State will be able to begin to do that for kids. The Legislature needs to do some small funding match for administration costs, but as soon as they do that – and I believe they will – then our kids this summer will have access to these cards.

In the state Legislature, there’s been a push in recent years to expand free lunches for all students during the school year, but it has been unsuccessful. Is there any effort on a federal level to do this, or is there anything you might be working on to help with that?

One step at a time, and this is certainly part of it. We need a broader awareness of the impact of nutrition on young kids, their learning capability, how successful they are and the impact on families. It impacts everything from their education to our economy if they are not well-fed. It just seems to me that in the United States of America, that’s something that a family should not have to worry about.

You’ve made a push to fund child care programs and help avoid a looming cliff where many providers who relied on pandemic assistance ran out of funding and faced closure. What is happening with that funding right now, and how might Washington be impacted?

I have child care legislation that I’ve been working to pass for some time, but it doesn’t stand a chance with Republicans in the House right now. As chair of Appropriations, I am working to fund Child Care and Development Block Grants, which goes for child care. That is one of my demands right now. That has to be funded and increased so that we can help families with child care.

State lawmakers would be the first ones to tell you we need additional federal dollars to help support families, make sure we’re paying well enough in our child care centers and have enough slots to be able to really enact strong child care legislation here.

President Joe Biden this week is scheduled to sign an agreement with tribes in the states of Oregon and Washington to restore salmon populations in the Snake River. You’ve worked with Gov. Jay Inslee on studying the possibility of breaching the Snake River dams. How does Biden’s agreement fit into your work?

Their work actually builds on the work that the governor and I did in exploring the question of whether dams should be breached with the goal of making sure that salmon, a rich part of our history, part of our culture, part of our economy, are sustained. We are not in a place right now where you can breach a dam because we don’t have the infrastructure, we don’t have the replacement of power. I believe that the president’s agreement really builds on that and helps make it very clear to all of us what we all need to be working on at federal and local levels.

Is there anything specific you’re talking to legislators about while in Olympia?

They’re asking the same questions you are. Where’s the federal support on everything from fentanyl to education to child care? These are all things they’re struggling with as they try to solve these issues in our state. I’m their partner in D.C. to make sure we’re doing what we can to help.

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This story was originally published by Washington State Standard.