Topeka — A group of high-powered politicos said Thursday it would hold the Legislature's feet to the fire to triple funding of Smart Start Kansas, an early-childhood program.
"It's kind of put up or shut up," said Tim Emert, a former Senate Republican leader from Independence.
Fresh from a meeting with Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, and armed with a war chest of $500,000 in contributions, the group of mostly moderate Republicans and Democrats said it would launch a media blitz urging legislators to focus on children's needs.
Members of the group, called the Kansas Children's Campaign, said they wanted lawmakers in 2004 to increase funding to Smart Start from $3.2 million to $10 million. They said they would make their case to business and civic groups around the state.
The Kansas Children's Campaign is led by former Senate president Dick Bond, an Overland Park Republican, and Jill Docking, a Wichita Democrat.
Smart Start focuses on children from birth to age 5. It provides funding to communities to put together a network of family support services, child care, early learning opportunities and health care.
Smart Start helped 13,136 children last year in seven programs, including the Success by 6 Coalition of Douglas County, which received a $193,778 grant from the state.
"This is a good place for the state to put its dollars," said Melissa Ness, chairwoman of the Kansas Children's Cabinet, which recommends expenditures from the state's share of tobacco settlement funds.
The Kansas Children's Campaign members said they wanted to fund Smart Start at the $10 million level by increasing appropriations from the tobacco money.
Members of the campaign said that Smart Start had proven to be a cost-effective way to prepare children for school when they enter kindergarten. The extra services for the children will reduce future costs to the state for special education, health care and criminal justice, they said.
Ness said if the Legislature boosted funding to Smart Start, it might have to cut tobacco funds to other programs or find more revenue to sustain those programs with general tax dollars.
Funding from tobacco funds has become more contentious in recent years because of a budget crunch.
When the settlement was first announced, lawmakers said they would set aside the annual payments from tobacco companies to pay for new children's initiatives.
Increasingly, however, the tobacco funds are being used to pay for ongoing state expenses that used to be paid for with tax revenue.
Earlier in the day, Sebelius praised the Smart Start program. And those who met with Sebelius said she urged them to enlist the business community to support increased funding for Smart Start.