In the days before the legislature opened on Jan. 12, you could hear advocates for Washington's poor and disabled taking some deep breaths as they prepared for a long, hard fight to try to save major pieces of the state's safety net.
In the wake of the nation's economic downturn, the state is facing an unprecedented budget shortfall of at least $5.7 billion in the next biennium. In December, after freezing state spending, Gov. Christine Gregoire proposed a 2009-11 budget that calls for making $3.5 billion in cuts, including $1.4 billion in human services cuts such as ending the $339 monthly assistance checks that go to the unemployed disabled, dropping 30,000 people from the state's Basic Health Plan, reducing welfare and emergency shelter funds, and chopping the state's affordable housing fund in half.
If lawmakers approve the plan, 2,600 state workers will lose their jobs when the new biennium starts July 1. Others won't get scheduled pay raises -- a prospect that has led unions representing state employees, childcare workers and homecare aides to file three lawsuits against Gregoire since December.
On Jan. 9, at a legislative preview forum, Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, was one of four legislators asked at one point to pick a theme song for the session. Hers was Bob Dylan's "Everything is Broken" -- a choice that made the crowd at the Seattle Westin laugh. But she and House Speaker Frank Chopp, a Seattle Democrat who also spoke at the CityClub event, made serious pledges to maintain General Assistance Unemployable, the $156 million program that provides assistance checks and medical care to 21,000 disabled people, many of whom are homeless.
"Fifty percent of these people are mentally ill [and] the amount they're expected to live on is $339," Chopp said at the forum. "People will die if we make the wrong decision in this budget."
With the governor and legislature also looking at passing a state-level economic stimulus package to create jobs, the feat that members of the Democratic-controlled House and Senate have to pull off, however, is agreeing on what else to cut instead of GAU and other programs, or how they can raise taxes -- a difficult prospect that Chopp and Brown did not rule out.
To head off the Democrats, Republicans plan to introduce a bill requiring the legislature to pass a balanced budget. But Brown and Chopp cited other options for stimulating the economy while sparing some of the cuts. The state could issue more capital bonds to create jobs building roads and bridges, Brown said, reorganize entire agencies or programs (with Chopp naming the Basic Health Plan as one possibility), or outsource more human services to nonprofits.
The state's Housing Trust Fund, which is currently at $200 million per biennium, is integral to jobs creation, says Rachael Myers, executive director of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance, because it pays for new construction of affordable housing units throughout the state -- an argument WLIHA is using to deter lawmakers from halving the fund to $100 million.
"Our top priority is trying to make it clear that, in a recession like this, housing is needed more than ever and that building housing is an economic stimulus," Myers says. "It creates job and revenue in local communities."
With home foreclosures on the rise, the alliance and other housing advocates are also focused on trying to help people stay in their homes by requiring banks to negotiate new terms and giving tenants who suddenly find themselves evicted for no cause -- more time to get out -- a growing problem in the state, according to the Tenants Union of Washington State.
Weekly data being tracked by the Tenants Union shows that, in December, at least one-fifth of the foreclosures in King County involved single-family homes or apartment buildings occupied by tenants. Even though they're paid up on their rent, says Tenants Union organizer Michele Thomas, tenants are finding 20-day eviction notices posted on their doors because the landlord hasn't been paying the mortgage on the property.
"Over and over at the Tenants Union, we're hearing that tenants are entering into lease agreements with landlords who [the tenant doesn't know] are already behind in their mortgage payments," Thomas says. With many tenants unable to get back their deposit or last month's rent, she says, "we're getting panicked calls from tenants asking, 'What do I do?'"
An unsponsored bill that the Tenants Union is working on would allow renters to break their leases, stay the full term or, at the very least, provide 45 to 90 days to move -- a particularly thorny issue, Thomas says, for low-income tenants who rely on federal Section 8 rental vouchers, which they can lose if they don't get the landlord's permission to break the lease.
To address cases where a landlord files eviction papers through no fault of the tenant's, the Washington State Coalition for the Homeless is also seeking a sponsor for a bill that would prevent such filings from popping up in court databases, protecting tenants from misleading background checks that could keep them from being accepted as a renter in the future. The coalition is also seeking to make credit checks "portable," so that applicants looking for an apartment only have to pay the $25 to $35 fee once in a given search.
Among other new legislation in the works:
* Discharge Planning. The Washington State Coalition for the Homeless is looking to plug a hole that foster youth, mental patients and former inmates fall into when they leave state custody with nowhere to go. To stop people from being released to the streets, the coalition wants the Department of Social and Health Services and the Department of Corrections to start tracking the housing status of former wards or inmates and develop a plan for how to house them in the future -- a proposed bill still in search of a sponsor.
* Gender Discrimination. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, and Rep. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, plan to introduce legislation requiring equal treatment for female athletes in government-funded recreation programs. The law is needed, says the ACLU of Washington's Doug Honig, because the landmark Title IX anti-discrimination law passed by Congress in 1972 applies only to public schools, not community athletics.
Returning issues or legislation:
* Paid Family Leave and Working Families Tax Rebate. Passed in 2007 and 2008, respectively, both remain unfunded mandates with poor prospects in the current legislature, advocates say. The tax rebate promised lower-income families a state refund check equal to 10 percent of their federal Earned Income Tax Credit. Paid family leave is supposed to pay $250 a week for up to five weeks for parents to care for a newborn or adopted child, but the legislature never passed the proposed source of funding -- a payroll contribution from workers of roughly $1 a week.
Lawmakers did allocate $6.2 million to set up the program, which was slated to start in October this year. But in the wake of the governor's state spending freeze, says Marilyn Watkins, policy director for the Economic Opportunity Institute, what's left of the $6.2 million of that money (roughly $4.5 million) is now in limbo. In the meantime, Watkins says, President-elect Barack Obama has pledged $1.5 billion to states to start paid family leave -- money Washington won't get, she says, if lawmakers don't rescue the program.
* Payday Loans, Income Discrimination and Voting Rights Restoration. The Statewide Poverty Action Network continues to seek an interest-rate cap of 36 percent on payday loans; the Tenants Union is taking another swing at making it illegal for landlords to discriminate based on income sources such as welfare or disability; and the ACLU of Washington is again pushing automatic restoration of voting rights for those who are exiting jail or prison but still have financial obligations to the legal system. "It would end the practice," says the ACLU's Doug Honig, "of tying voting to financial means."