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Friday September 29, 2000

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Funding for the human spirit

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By Sheila Bapat

Ingrid Novodvorsky knows the resilience of the human spirit.

It's something the University of Arizona physics professor learned through her work at the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault (SACASA).

"I talked to people who had experienced horrible things," said Novodvorsky, president of SACASA's Board of Directors. "But it's amazing how people always regain control."

Novodvorsky and SACASA do invaluable work helping people who have dealt with the devastation of sexual assault. Unfortunately, the federal funding that they depend upon to do their work is hard to come by.

Federal funding from the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) accounts for roughly 30 percent of SACASA's budget. It is reauthorized by Congress every three years.

But this year it won't be.

Even though the U.S. House of Representatives gave it almost unanimous support, 415-3, when they approved VAWA Tuesday, the Senate won't even vote on the bill. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., controls which bills get to the floor. Apparently, he didn't think VAWA was important enough.

A staff assistant in Lott's office said that she doesn't expect the bill to come to the floor before the Senate adjourns on Oct. 13. She did promise that Lott is doing all that he can to get it passed.

Yeah, right.

True, several appropriations bills still need to be passed in order for the country to run next year. But VAWA should not have been pushed back so far into the legislative session. Had it been passed early enough, groups around the country like SACASA would not have to worry about getting funding.

Like too many other important issues, VAWA became a political football. The GOP-controlled Congress did not want to let the Clinton administration declare its passage a victory. Especially not now, weeks before they try to win back the White House.

Nobody in Arizona Sen. John McCain's office could comment on the bill, except to say that he usually forms an opinion about it after it comes to the floor.

That won't happen for VAWA this legislative session.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. supports VAWA. Unfortunately Kyl can't push an important bill through the Senate all by himself.

This dip in funding will put SACASA in a crunch next year and will force them to look other places for the money. Luckily the state, in a rare display of generosity, is giving SACASA more than $380,000, the largest chunk of a $1.1 million state lawsuit settlement. Arizona Attorney General Janet Napolitano spoke at SACASA's annual board meeting Tuesday to announce SACASA's award.

Aside from its annual funding from the Arizona Department of Health Services, this is the first large portion of money SACASA has received from the state. It isn't, however, something it can count on regularly.

Groups like SACASA need federal support in order to keep going. Its work is consistently undervalued by a government that would rather put time and political energy into promoting a multi-billion dollar tax cut instead of passing a bill like VAWA.

"We rely on that chunk of our funding pretty heavily," Novodvorksy said. "But there's all sorts of delaying tactics that take place. It might not be passed until after inauguration. It's a victim of the political races."

Novodvorsky arrived at SACASA in 1995 and worked as a crisis line volunteer, helping people who had just experienced sexual assault or who were dealing with the psychological effects. She also worked in the Sexual Assualt Response Service, visiting victims in emergency rooms and lending support through the trauma they were experiencing. They provide equipment to Tucson hospitals, and help educate the community about how to deal with sexual violence.

The services they provide to Arizona deserve federal funding.

"We are not a glamorous cause," Novodvorsky said. "People don't like to think about sexual violence. It's just not pleasant to think about, but it's an important issue. And we need support to continue."