Short legislative session forces human services advocates to choose their battles
On Jan. 13, the Washington State Legislature will convene for a short 60-day session.
Given the brief time frame — long sessions last 105 days — and the coming election year, lobbyists are preparing for quick conversations on the legislation they would like to pass.
Legislators will use the session to sponsor what are called messaging bills, legislation that may not pass but helps politicians establish a stance as they head into the 2014 election, said Marilyn Watkins, policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute (EOI).
“People from all parties and political persuasions are going to be moving a message for the November election,” she said.
Advocates for housing and economic justice are still hoping to secure funding for housing, make the housing market fairer and more affordable to low-income people, and solve the rising tuition prices that put higher education out of reach for poor and middle-class families.
Here are a few highlights to watch for when lawmakers open the session this month:
Pay It Forward
Rep. Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, and EOI and pushing Washington to establish a program called Pay It Forward, a potential solution to rising tuition prices.
Students who go to college under the program would pay no tuition; instead they would pay a small percentage of their salary after graduation into a state fund for 10 to 25 years.
Those payments would cover the cost of new students entering college.
The Oregon State Legislature voted to study the idea in 2015. The EOI is urging Washington lawmakers to instead establish a small version of the program.
Washington already has other programs to help people pay for college. The Guaranteed Education Tuition Program (GET) allows people to purchase college credits at today’s prices and use them later.
Pay It Forward is different, EOI’s Kelli Smith said, because it’s not a loan or a savings program. It would also apply to any student and would not have income requirements.
Students pay what they can out of their salary and stop paying after a set number of years.
In Washington, EOI is pushing lawmakers to establish a small version of the program, which would initially apply either to a single college or field of study and could later be expanded.
Fair Tenant Screening Act
Housing advocates are hoping to reform the Fair Tenant Screening Act, a law that regulates background checks for housing, allowing renters to use the same background check for multiple applications.
Currently, landlords can require background checks of every applicant, which can cost an applicant up to $60. When someone is searching for an apartment, they are often applying at multiple places and paying the screening fee for each application.
“We think that’s fundamentally unfair, and it really directly impacts low-income people, and particularly people with bad credit or things on their records that they can’t get expunged,” said Jonathan Grant, executive director of the Tenants Union of Washington State.
The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance and the Tenants Union are proposing an addition to the Fair Tenant Screening Act that would allow people to take a screening report from one application and use it for other applications within 30 days.
Landlords would not be required to accept the screening report, but if they required another background check, they could not charge applicants for it.
Document recording fees
People currently pay a $58 fee when filing paperwork for property sales, title changes or liens.
The fee pays for domestic violence shelters, emergency shelter, temporary rental assistance and short-term hotel vouchers.
The revenue was first established in 2002 at $10, but the fee has grown since then with temporary increases. In 2015, the fee will drop by $10 to $48 and in 2017 it will drop another $20 to $28.
The Washington Low Income Housing Alliance wants to make the fees permanent in order to establish a secure funding source.
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