Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Friday, February 14, 2014

Cornelius demystifies Wisconsin state budget, advocates for children

Tamarine Cornelius

Cornelius to speak at Feb. 20 Policy and a Pint

At the semester's first Policy and a Pint on Thursday, February 20, Tamarine Cornelius, a '99 alum, will share her social policy insights from her work on KidsCount and the Wisconsin Budget Project, two major initiatives of the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

All Policy and a Pint events are 5-7 p.m. in the upstairs room of Brocach on the Square, 7 West Main Street. Associate director Melanie Manion is the moderator for the after-work speaker and networking series. Policy and a Pints are also scheduled for March 11 and April 16.

Tamarine Cornelius wants to people to have the information they need to make up their own minds about state budget issues and to help them connect the dots between budget issues.

"At the Wisconsin Budget Project, one of my goals is to help advocates for other causes understand how the state budget fits together and how it can affect programs and opportunities they care about," says the 1999 alum, a research analyst for the nonprofit Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, home of the Wisconsin Budget Project.

"I also hope to help create a new class of advocates by helping show people who don't pay much attention to tax and budget issues how decisions made by lawmakers and other policymakers affect their everyday lives," says Cornelius, who has two children and lives on the near east side of Madison. "To do that, I'm continually trying to open up tax and budget discussions, to make those discussions more relevant to what people care about and – let's face it – less boring."

She emphasizes that she tries to avoid and defuse partisan rhetoric around Wisconsin by looking at recent proposals to cut taxes. "I have been doing a lot of work to highlight who would and would not benefit from the proposals," Cornelius says. "I often hear from people who are grateful for the accurate, easy-to-understand information the Wisconsin Budget Project provides. That is the most gratifying part – to know that people are relying on your work to help make sense of budget issues."

Cornelius also manage Wisconsin's contributions to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's national Kids Count Data Center. "The work on our Kids Count project is also aimed at empowering advocates," she says. "All sorts of child advocates and program workers use the Data Center and its variety of child well-being indicators to conduct needs assessments and plan their work. It's satisfying to be responsible for a resource that is so important for other advocates."

After graduating from Oberlin College in 1996, Cornelius moved to Wisconsin and worked on the staff of a congressional campaign. After her candidate lost the campaign, Cornelius decided to pursue a master's degree in public policy, which she completed in 1999.

"My degree from La Follette was very helpful in opening doors to employers," Cornelius says. "Specifically helpful were the 'real-world' projects that we did as a part of our coursework, in which groups of La Follette students partnered with government agencies to identify potential solutions to thorny public policy issues. I worked with a group that developed ways to improve human resource processes for the City of Milwaukee."

While a student, she worked as a program assistant with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources' law enforcement bureau. "I learned a lot of valuable data management skills that I still rely on," Cornelius says. "The job juxtaposed well with my studies at La Follette, and I wound up conducting an independent study at La Follette that compared law enforcement recruitment approaches and the diversity of the workforce for different law enforcement agencies, including the DNR Bureau of Law Enforcement."

That paper won her the 1999 Clara Penniman award at graduation — thanks, Cornelius says, in part to professor Dennis Dresang's guidance.

She still appreciates that La Follette did not require her to focus on a specific policy problem, although many of her classmates did. "At the time, not identifying a specific policy area that I wanted to focus on after I graduated seemed like a deficit on my part, but the reality is that I work on many different policy areas in the course of a single day," she says. "Focusing on one policy topic to the exclusion of others while I was at La Follette would have been counterproductive."

After graduating, Cornelius spent three years with the Legislative Audit Bureau, then joined the staff at the Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center, where she became the program evaluation coordinator. She coordinated an agency-wide program evaluation to determine whether Safe Harbor was meeting its objectives in serving child maltreatment victims and their families, implemented a case tracking system for the organization, and developed sources of quantitative information for Safe Harbor to use in strategic planning and enhancing partner agency collaboration. She started at the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families in 2010.

Cornelius has also done contract work as an evaluator for Mental Health Center of Dane County. She created, managed and updated a large database with records involving pre- and post-intervention measures for more than 5,000 Madison area sixth-graders screened for post-traumatic stress disorder.

As a volunteer, Cornelius manages an annual fund-raising event for Safe Harbor, which provides services to child abuse victims. "In organizing this event, I rely on several principles I first became familiarized with at La Follette, including the integration of public/private organizations, organizational culture and management approaches," she notes.

Cornelius occasionally works with current La Follette students who intern with the Council on Families and Children. "La Follette gives students a solid grounding in the fundamentals, while connecting them to real-life policy projects and examples," she says. "I met a great group of fellow students when I was at La Follette and I still enjoy interacting with them, both in the personal and professional realms."