The November election gave advocates for affordable housing and social services some peace of mind. The Democrats retained control of the governorship and House of Representatives, which is more likely to preserve if not increase funding for social programs. And while the margin was thin, Democrats held a majority in the Senate as well.
And yet, a $1 billion budget deficit, a mandate to increase education funding and a narrow and uncertain margin in the Senate threaten that peace.
In January, the State Supreme Court ruled the state is underfunding schools.Lawmakers face the challenge of finding another $1 billion for education, while a $1 billion deficit looms in the coming biennium.
Earlier in December, two state Democrats, Rodney Tom (D-Bellevue) and Tim Sheldon, (D-Potlach) joined Senate Republicans to create a bipartisan majority in opposition to the rest of the Senate Democrats.
That makes Jan. 14 — when the legislature will convene and the Senate will assign chairs to its committees — an especially critical day.
“If it didn’t matter so much, it would be really, really funny,” said Robin Zukoski, government relations coordinator for Columbia Legal Services.
All about the revenue
Some technical changes open the door for a conversation about generating revenue. The State House of Representatives split its Ways and Means Committee into two committees: Finance and Appropriation. This means advocates will talk to one group about how to get the money and another about how to spend the money.
By creating separate sets of deliberation, this change could lead to more time to talk about generating new revenue, said Tony Lee, policy director for the Statewide Poverty Action Network.
“It’s good to have two committees to devote more time to tax issues,” he said.
Some intend to push for closing tax loopholes and implementing new taxes to generate revenue.
“It’s high time legislators scrutinize tax breaks and cancel the ones that don’t have a public benefit,” said Jon Gould, deputy director of the Children’s Alliance.
A month before Christmas, organizations such as the Children’s Alliance, Columbia Legal Services and the Washington Low Income Housing Association drafted their own wish lists for what they want to happen in the coming session. They want more revenue and no more cuts to social services, but they’re also seeking for a few policy changes to make Washington a safer place for homeless teens.
Helping youth on the streets
Up until July of this year, if a teenager walked into a homeless shelter, he or she could be there for up to three days before caseworkers were required to call a parent or guardian or law enforcement.
That time allowed shelter workers to talk with teenagers and figure how they ended up there before picking up the phone.
Shelter providers said the window of time helped to create a sense of security for young people and encouraged them to seek help. Without it, many teens wouldn’t go to a shelter in the first place, they said.
The stipulation was given a two-year sunset period, but no one sought to renew it and, in July, the window of time went away. The Mockingbird Society and others are asking to permanently reinstate it.
Funding for state programs providing cash assistance, rent and household supplies have taken hits every year in the Washington State Legislature.
Columbia Legal Services and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness (SKCCH) are campaigning to keep the existing $54 million for the Housing and Essential Needs program (HEN) and $155 million in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and get a little cash in the hands of people who have no income.
Cash subsidies are a tough sell. In the last biennium, the legislature cut cash assistance to people with zero income and replaced it with a supply program giving those people items like mops, dental floss and dish soap.
Many believe cash is still necessary. Before the HEN program, people who made no income could receive a check of $197 for household needs. Zukoski is pushing the legislature to provide just $50.
Everyone needs at least some cash, she said, because a program offering supplies simply can’t provide everything people need to survive.
To qualify for these programs, applicants must also qualify for state medical benefits, which will be replaced with federal health care benefits in 2014 thanks to the Affordable Care Act.
The legislature will need to adjust the eligibility requirements this session.
Columbia Legal Services, SKCCH and Solid Ground are also asking the legislature to expand eligibility and cut term limits on these programs.
In January, a State Supreme Court decision, McCleary vs. the State of Washington, determined that Washington is underfunding education, and this is preventing students from succeeding.
Social services advocates say they want more funding for education, but defunding social services for kids and adults will hinder improving education.
“Cutting social services to fund education won’t accomplish the long-term goals of educating our kids and providing them a better future,” said Collin Jergens, spokesperson for FUSE Washington, a nonprofit advocating for more revenue. “Hungry kids don’t learn well.”