Toys aid senator in quest for change

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 7, 1999

On the second floor, laws are being made.

Wednesday, April 07, 1999

On the second floor, laws are being made. Near the foot of the staircase, a veteran senator is playing with a basket of toys.

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Armed with a basket of brightly colored cars and blocks, Sen. Pat Piper, DFL-Austin, is trying to reach her youngest constituents.

But, she’s not looking for votes or support, she’s just letting them know she thinks they’re important.

&uot;If you don’t invest in the children when they are little, then you have to spend more money later,&uot; she said.

That’s a message she’s also trying to get out to other lawmakers.

As a result, she’s made a hobby of sending Gov. Jesse Ventura articles outlining research that says the earliest years of childhood are the most crucial for development.

She said the research she passes on outlines the fact that a child’s brain starts developing long before entering public school. She said what happens to children in their earliest years may be the things that turn them into criminals or other problems for society in later years.

She said early childhood education is the only way to keep the young minds developing in a positive way.

&uot;If you don’t do these things by the time they are 5 years old, you’ve lost them,&uot; she said.

Frequently critical of the new Reform Party governor, Piper points out that he has little experience with child care and has not been supportive of state aid for it.

&uot;Yet, his own children had the advantage of child care,&uot; she said.

The Austin Democrat said she’s just trying to raise awareness of the need for quality child care for all Minnesota residents, not only those able to pay the rising fees.

&uot;(The governor’s) concept is that everyone should take care of themselves,&uot; she said.

But, when welfare-to-work movements are requiring more parents to return to the workforce, Piper said there is a need for state-funded child care for the children of those parents who are now working near minimum-wage jobs and trying to raise their children.

As chair of the Senate’s Family and Early Childhood Education Budget Division, Piper said there are several areas that need to be addressed in the next two-year state budget, but she said one has become a priority.

&uot;The essential element has got to be that child care money, because of the waiting list,&uot; she said.

There are currently 7,446 eligible families on the state’s basic sliding fee waiting list for child care assistance. Piper estimates $30.5 million is needed to help those families and a total of $80 million will be needed for the projected demand through the next two years.

She said now, in a good economy, is the time to start investing in the state’s youngest residents, but she noted that the push and pull of the Legislature sometimes makes that a difficult battle.

&uot;You have so many tensions,&uot; she said.

So, as one weapon in her struggle to change the mind-set of fellow legislators, Piper has gathered her toys.

She said the toys make the Capitol a more friendly place for children. As a result, more parents and child care workers are willing to come with their children and work for state support of their needs.

An example of that was Thursday’s Child Care Day at the Capitol. It was then that Piper had her toys spread out on the floor of the Capitol rotunda while lawmakers and child care providers discussed legislation.

&uot;Those children were so content playing with the toys while people were speaking,&uot; Piper said.

While she’s had some of the toy’s since first joining the Legislature 17 years ago, the baskets have filled in recent years.

&uot;When I became chair of the little children’s committee – little ed as we call it – I went out and got more,&uot; she said.

Now, the senator relies on staff member Tim Michaels to grab the toys whenever children are spotted at the Capitol, whether a committee meeting, Capitol gathering or even the governor’s inauguration.

&uot;They get used a lot,&uot; she said.

The toys were even brought out when fellow senator, Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, had her child with her because of child care difficulties. Anderson’s husband, Andy Dawkins, is a representative and their child is frequently seen at the Capitol.

Piper said she’s happy to provide the toys, noting that they play a part in the learning process she is working to promote.

Additionally, she said there is a benefit to having children come to the Capitol when discussing children’s issues. It puts a face on the legislation.

&uot;It’s so you don’t forget who you’re doing it for,&uot; she said.

Too often, she said, other groups have lobbyist speaking for them, but the children remain silent.

Comparing it with the legislative needs and concerns of the state’s senior citizen population, she said both are important, but sometimes children get overshadowed by the group that is able to vote.

&uot;You can’t just focus on one end of the spectrum without focusing on the other,&uot; she said.