The Behavioral Health Legislative Forum at Town Hall Seattle felt more like a concert than an event about stigmatized health issues. Teams, including a crew from the Recovery Café, came in matching T-shirts and cheered speakers with joyful abandon. Organizers warned that only 800 of the 1,100 who RSVP’d for the event would be allowed in. At least one person deftly slipped past the guarded front entrance to infiltrate the forum.
The main prize: access to lawmakers. The forum, put on by the King County Department of Behavioral Health and Recovery Division on Dec. 7, was one of many gatherings to take place leading up to Washington’s 2017 legislative session, a 105-day battle to pass bills that support lawmakers’ vision for Washington state.
Legislators sat in booths, greeting constituents and answering questions as people munched on miniature fruit-and-cheese tarts and cookies. Their work will begin with the opening of the session on Jan. 9.
The Washington State Legislature’s role, and those of local officials across the United States, became more important on Nov. 9 when a minority of U.S. voters elected Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. Personal political proclivities aside, one thing most can agree on is that where Hillary Clinton represented gradual change and continuation of Obama-era policies, Trump’s policy vision for America is largely unknown, buried under the weight of scandal and debate about temperament through most of the campaign.
With federal funding at risk, groups will turn to state and local government for the help they need, something of which Jim Vollendroff, director of the Behavioral Health and Recovery Division, is keenly aware.
“Threats to our progress are real, and we must remain steadfast in our resolve to move the behavioral health system in the right direction,” Vollendroff told the assembled legislators.
At the forefront of any policy discussion is the Washington state budget. Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal for the 2017–19 biennium covers all the usual ground, but he has suggested revenue increases and highlighted five issue-areas to bolster with additional policy briefs: education, mental health, carbon pollution, homelessness and families.
Many of these echo scandals and controversies that have plagued the state this year, such as its inability to fully fund K-12 education, the mental health crisis at Western State Hospital, Washington’s central mental health facility, and the ongoing and worsening homelessness crisis in Seattle.
The governor also emphasized the decentralization of the Department of Social and Human Services (DSHS), a monolithic department responsible for the majority of social services in the state. A Blue Ribbon Commission, created by the governor in an attempt to address problems in the system that delivers services to children and families, recommended removing the Children’s Administration from under the DSHS umbrella. Mental health services may soon follow, said Rep. Eileen Cody, a Democrat representing District 34, which encompasses Vashon Island and parts of Seattle.
A similar wish list
With changes coming on all fronts, social service providers across Seattle and the state are making their wish lists for the coming legislative session. For many, there’s no need to check them twice: Year after year they ask for much the same in a state with limited resources and a fairly static set of lawmakers.
“I didn’t even have to rewrite this,” said Reiny Cohen, director of communications at the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance (WLIHA) of her organization’s legislative agenda.
The legislative process in Washington state is iterative, and there are myriad ways a bill can derail. Bills must survive three readings, the first of which is its introduction where the leadership chooses what committee will take it up. If the committee signs off, it moves to the Senate Rules Committee, where members decide if a bill will get a second reading, and then to the House Rules Committee.
In the second reading, the bills that survive can be amended, and then in the third reading both houses must pass the bill in the same form for it to be enrolled and sent to the governor for signing.
But, because of Washington’s part-time legislative, all of this must take place in a limited amount of time. Bills that stumble can fall into what’s called “the X-file,” legislative purgatory.
As Cary Retlin, a policy adviser at the Department of Commerce put it, “That’s not where you want your bill to go.”
The result is a stable list of asks from organizations trying to achieve new successes or defend past ones.
Housing and homelessness services
The Interfaith Task Force on Homelessness (ITFH) will be fighting again to secure more protections for religious organizations to make it more attractive for them to get involved in housing homeless people through shelters, tent cities and safe parking lots, said Rev. Bill Kirlin-Hackett, a longtime advocate for homeless services. Churches have the First-Amendment right to serve homeless people on church property, based on the concept of freedom of religion.
“Churches are hesitant to get involved with things around jurisdiction, thinking they’ll be breaking the law or at risk financially somehow,” Kirlin-Hackett said. “A lot of them don’t even know about the religious land-use law. We’re constantly having to tell them they have the right to do this.”
That means restricting local jurisdictions from over-legislating faith communities. Some communities use permitting restrictions to prevent churches from exercising their right to host tent encampments on their properties. Cities have enacted policies that allow encampments to operate indoors only, or allow only one tent city in a community per calendar year.
This year’s effort will have another provision to encourage safe parking, allowing homeless people with vehicles to sleep in them without harassment.
ITFH will also push to lift a restriction that has prevented churches without sprinklers from operating homeless shelters, a requirement that Kirlin-Hackett argues does nothing to increase safety and keeps churches from aiding in the battle against homelessness.
The biggest item on the list would exempt poor and homeless people from having to pay for new car tabs, which can top $100. Although low-income people can qualify for a discount, it’s only 20 percent, Kirlin-Hackett said. That leaves some with the choice of spending money they cannot afford or getting caught in an unending cycle of tickets.
While the ITFH wants to prevent people from paying fees, wliha wants to make sure developers contiune to pay theirs.
The document recording fee, which ranges from $1 to $74, depending on the type of document in question, helps fund affordable housing production across the state. It’s a permanent fixture on WLIHA’s agenda, Cohen said, because the organization is always either fighting to defend it or guarding against a legislature that wants to tack on a sunset clause to eventually kill it.
Other hot items include a source-of-income discrimination ban, meaning that a landlord couldn’t deny a potential tenant based on how they pay their rent, be that with a housing voucher or their social security income. The issue might be old, but the momentum around it is new: Seattle passed a wide-ranging ban this year, and Renton stepped in with a more limited version.
Entities with broad interests, such as the city of Seattle, are hitting issues across the board.
The most visible new priority is fighting to maintain its status as a “sanctuary city,” meaning that the local government and police force will not help federal immigration forces in their efforts to pursue undocumented immigrants.
City officials are taking it a step further, looking for support for immigrants and refugee rights, as well as civic engagement and voting rights.
That dovetails with work that the Asian Counseling and Referral Services organization is doing to make voting easier and increased naturalization workshops, said Monica Ng, spokesperson for the group.
The organization pushes the legislature to strengthen the social safety net every cycle broadly through the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition, a coalition of grassroots groups that work for the Asian Pacific Islander community.
A more recent issue is health care for people from the Marshall Islands, Ng said.
“They can’t even get Apple [Health],” Ng said. “It’s important for these individuals, especially given the history of colonization and history of nuclear testing on those islands, that health care is available for those folks.”
One issue that unites almost every group, regardless of focus: education.
The state has been under the thumb of the state Supreme Court for poorly funding the school system in a case called McCleary v. Washington. Lawmakers have failed to meet the standard set forward in that case, and the court found the state in contempt and began charging a fine of $100,000 per day.
The governor proposed a suite of new taxes to pay for the investment, including a capital-gains tax, a business and operations tax and a carbon emissions tax, as well as closing tax loopholes. That proposal doesn’t go as far as a tax plan put forward by the Budget & Policy Center. The think tank, which is focused on budget issues, advocates for a 10.7 percent tax, while Inslee floated a 7.9 percent version.
With such broad support from so many groups, not to mention the pressure from the courts, it is hard to imagine that lawmakers will fail to find some way to deal with the school funding issue this biennium, but then, it hasn’t addressed the problem over the past four years.
The breadth of issues coming at lawmakers is nothing new, nor are many of the requests that advocates and agencies will send their way.
However, while the political balance in Olympia remains practically unchanged, uncertainty foments urgency at the local level.
Legislators may not always be held captive on a public stage, but they can expect groups fighting for their attention more than ever in the coming weeks.