The Democrats have finished their work in Olympia. They were forthright in defending access to abortion and enhancing gun control. But, when it came to decreasing the economic uncertainties of life for working-class families, their approach was at best incremental.
Let’s start with the good stuff. Thanks to the Democrats and Gov. Jay Inslee, we now have a ban on selling and purchasing assault weapons. Republicans, bowing to the National Rifle Association, were in total opposition. Democrats also passed several bills to protect the right to abortion and to prohibit Idaho from prosecuting Washington health professionals who provide abortion services. No Republicans voted for these bills.
In the other Washington, Congress failed to extend common-sense policies that came into force during the pandemic — common sense for everyday life, not just during a pandemic — such as school meals provided for all students, not kicking people off Medicaid when their income increased and the $300-per-month child tax credit for all working families.
Olympia’s Democrats aren’t exactly heroes for our shared economic security. Rep. Marcus Riccelli (D-Spokane) introduced a bill “providing free school meals for all.” That would have provided school meals at no charge to K-12 students in all public schools. The federal government ended this program before the 2022-2023 school year, leaving in limbo and possibly hungry about two-fifths of all K-12 students in our state.
Our state government could fill that gap, and that was the intention of providing free school meals for all. But Democratic legislators could not figure out how to fund this program, which would have cost about $100 million a year. Riccelli gave a one-word answer when asked why free meals for all students was no longer on the table: “Money.” So “providing free meals for all,” as the legislation is labelled, is actually providing only free meals to schools with 40 percent or more low-income students in the 2023-2024 school year. The cut-off for a four-person family is $51,000. That brings the price tag down to $16 million a year.
That leaves 300,000 kids without access to cost-free school meals. If your child switches from a school in which 40 percent of the kids are low income to a school with 38 percent low-income kids, then no more free school meals. The watered-down bill gained bipartisan support — only nine Republicans voted against it. Universal free school meals would have also garnered Republican support. So, leaving out working-class and middle-class kids from school meals sits right at the feet of the Democrats.
Democrats also talk a good line on child care. In fact, the capital gains tax was framed as a way to fund child care. However, the translation was pretty leaky. For child care, the bulk of funding went to making up for some of the expired federal pandemic funds. While the Legislature targeted $36 million for compensation for child care workers during the pandemic, Democrats refused to fund compensation for caregivers in child care centers after that federal money was spent. They disregarded two reports that they authorized to determine the cost of decent compensation for child care (between $500 million and $1 billion a year). They left unfunded a state law for a career-and-wage ladder for child care workers.
The Legislature did incrementally increase funding for the Working Connections Child Care program and Early Childhood Education Assistance program, but these only help poor kids. There is no assistance for the children of working-class and middle-class families. So with all the talk about the crisis in child care, the Legislature piles on, marginalizing child care and child care workers.
What about the Working Families Tax Credit? It’s only for poor working families. If you have three or more kids and your income is $60,000, you don’t qualify. Republicans suggested expanding this to working-class taxpayers, but this was not funded in the budget.
Free school lunch, child care compensation and expansion of the Working Families Tax Credit could all have been funded if Democrats had the gumption to pass the intangible wealth tax proposed by Sen. Noel Frame (D-Seattle). This would have taxed 1 percent of stocks and bonds in excess of $250 million. Jeff Bezos would have been taxed 1 percent of his current wealth of $125 billion (excluding his new yacht!). This would have left him $123.75 billion and shifted $1.25 billion to our government to fund what working-class voters need: a cut in the cost of child care, living wages for child care teachers, school meals for all kids, tuition reductions, et cetera.
Funding our social democracy would be straight-forward if Democrats were willing to tax the oligarchs and the uber-wealthy who are the biggest and luckiest beneficiaries of our out-of-control capitalist system. But that is postponed for another year, as are free meals for K-12 students. After all, what is more important? Protecting wealth and privilege or taking care of children, feeding them and making sure their families can pay the utility, fuel and tuition bills?
John Burbank is the founder and retired executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle.
Read more of the May 3-9, 2023 issue.