By Kim Justice and Mike Mitchell -- In the popular game Jenga, players take turns removing pieces out of a tower of wooden blocks while trying to avoid having the entire structure fall down. It’s a game of risk—much like the one the state Senate is playing now.
In this real-life case the “tower” is Washington state’s finances. The job of the legislature is to make sure the budget lays a solid foundation that does not come tumbling down. The Senate is failing at this. Instead of raising the additional revenue it would take to meet public needs, the Senate relies on over $600 million in “funny money,” hidden cuts, and other actions that weaken the whole structure. Each move is like one of those wooden blocks being dislodged from the Jenga tower. It only takes a few unsound pieces before the whole thing falls to the ground.
For example, the Senate would put only $35 million in the state’s savings account- or “unrestricted ending fund balance”- leaving little cushion to fall back on if there is an economic downturn or unanticipated needs. That would trigger further cuts to public priorities like education, public safety, and a clean environment.
Actions taken by the Senate that don’t hold up include (see box and appendix for more detail):
- Hidden Cuts: $210 million in savings are estimated through administrative “efficiencies” and other unspecified reductions. After multiple years of cuts totaling over $10 billion, it’s inconceivable that agencies can lower costs without making actual cuts to staff, services, and programs. These savings will result in real and harmful cuts.
- Funny money: Over $200 million of the Senate budget is balanced by cuts that will not materialize. For example, shifting part-time workers to the health benefit exchange is claimed to save $127 million, but that expectation isn't realistic. Collectively-bargained contracts would have to be renegotiated in time for the start date, which is not feasible. The proposal assumes worker buy-in on a proposal that may not provide a net benefit to employees.
- Out of bounds: The Senate budget contains $195 million in funding that violates federal requirements and robs protected funds. For example, Washington state could face up to $19 million in federal penalties if, as the Senate budget fails to do, we do not fund a system to track home care hours, which is estimated to cost $9.7 million.
The state budget is not a game. To create jobs and build the middle class, we need a budget that works for all Washingtonians, not one built on illusions that put us at risk. The Senate should follow the lead of the Governor and House who choose to raise additional revenue by closing outdated tax breaks and extending taxes now in effect.
Our Executive Director Remy Trupin released the following statement this morning: "As lawmakers convene today for a special session, they should fully fund education as required in the McCleary decision and stop trying to balance the budget with tricks and gimmicks that don’t add up no matter how creative the math.
It is time to choose middle class families and workers over tax breaks for big companies that aren’t creating jobs in Washington state. The best choice legislators could make for our state would be to lay a foundation for a strong economy by creating a strong and equitable revenue system that sustains public investments, ensures better opportunities for all kids, creates better jobs and rebuilds the middle class.
The inability of legislators to make the right choices during the regular session drove the need for a special session. It is not too late to change course."
Update: Jordan Schrader with the Tacoma News Tribune has agreed to join the Budget Beat call this Friday. He will share his observations from covering the legislature.
About Budget Beat
During the legislative session we've been hosting calls twice a month, on Fridays at noon, to bring you important updates from Olympia, timely policy analysis, and useful resources to keep you informed and help you make an impact.
On each call we:
- Provide legislative updates and breaking news from Olympia
- Highlight a relevant policy issue or legislative proposal
- Encourage participants to share information, resources and upcoming events
Part five in a series “Special Legislative Session: The Big Picture.” The Legislature will return to Olympia on Monday, where the focus will continue to be on education. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate have made additional investments in education & opportunity a high priority. However, the House budget proposal goes much further in making the key investments that expand early learning opportunities and fulfill our obligation to fund basic education.
Due to last year’s McCleary ruling by the State Supreme Court, policymakers must take significant steps toward fully funding basic education over the next five years. Among other things, increased investments must be made to reduce class sizes, transport kids to and from school, phase in full-day kindergarten and maintain school buildings and supplies. Yet investing in these things alone is not enough to ensure that opportunity is widespread and readily accessible. Greater investments in early learning, closing the achievement gap and making higher education more accessible are critical to continued prosperity in Washington state.
Overall, the House budget invests $1.1 billion -- nearly $400 million more than the Senate – in expanding opportunity through education. The two budgets present a stark contrast in funding for education:
- Early Learning: Both the House and the Senate make sizable investments in expanding the state’s early learning system. The Senate expands access to pre-school opportunities for more than 800 kids while also increasing the reimbursement rate to early learning providers by 10.3 percent. The House nearly doubles this investment, putting $45 million into increasing early learning access to over 1800 additional families while also expanding home visiting care to new mothers and infants.
- Basic Education: The House budget puts a much larger down payment towards meeting our obligation of fully funding basic education – investing $1.2 billion towards McCleary compared to $760 million in the Senate proposal. The House invests $225 million into reducing class sizes as well as another $90 million for implementing full-day kindergarten. The Senate puts no additional dollars into reducing class sizes and only $43 million for full-day kindergarten.
- Expanding opportunity: The House makes a much broader range of investments geared toward closing the opportunity gap, putting nearly $13 million into bilingual education along with additional funds for drop-out prevention. The Senate however makes a $240 million investment in the Learning assistance program (LAP) -- the state’s major educational support program for struggling students –$200 million more than the House proposal.
- Higher Education: Neither budget proposal takes steps to adequately address rising tuition costs paid by students and families across the state. The House proposal allows for moderate tuition increases at four-year institutions and technical colleges, but provides additional funding for financial assistance through the State Need Grant and College Bound programs. The Senate restricts universities from raising tuition and provides minimal additional funds – leaving colleges and universities holding the bag in terms of how to make ends meet.
For more information on the difference between the House and Senate’s investments in education & opportunity, see the table below.
Part four in a series “Special Legislative Session: The Big Picture.” Both the House and Senate budgets take advantage of the single best opportunity to improve health: expansion of Medicaid to more than 250,000 people in Washington state. But that’s not the end of the story, as there are still significant differences between the House and Senate bills in how we invest in keeping Washington’s people and environment healthy.
The House goes further than the Senate to preserve and strengthen state investments that protect seniors and children. On investments in clean air, water, and land, both the House and Senate make damaging cuts, but the Senate cuts to key environmental programs that maintain Washingtonians quality of life are far deeper. The House invests over $200 million towards ensuring good health and quality of life for Washingtonians. The Senate invests $36 million (see graph below).
Some key differences include (see table for more detail):
- Dental care for adults. Oral health care, including teeth cleanings, fillings, and dentures, is a critical aspect of maintaining overall good health. These services were drastically reduced in the last budget cycle, but the House fully restores this funding. The Senate proposes to only partially bring back dental benefits, for preventative care and dentures only.
- Quality child care. Currently, a child care provider’s salary covers less than half of a family’s basic needs. The House increases payments to all child care providers and gives an additional increase to providers who deliver high-quality care. These pay incentives promote quality and mean more families will be able to find child care. The Senate fails to make this important investment.
- Protecting seniors: The House budget includes investments to protect seniors and people with disabilities from neglect, abuse, and financial exploitation. The Senate does not include any funding for these protections.
- A clean and safe environment: Both the House and Senate transfer $29 million away from the Model Toxics Control Account (MTCA), which is dedicated to cleaning up over 5,000 toxic sites in Washington state. These toxic sites threaten people’s health in communities across the state by contaminating the water and land where we live, work, and play. The Senate makes things even worse by also cutting $12.6 million from the Department of Ecology, which will further erode our state’s ability to keep our drinking water and air safe, and maintain the environmental amenities so critical to our quality of life in Washington state.
A bright spot amid shrinking resources is the savings that result from the expansion of Medicaid, a decision that both chambers agree on. As we have written about previously, expanding Medicaid is a good deal for our state. It will greatly increase the number of people who have access to health care while savings the state between $250-300 million in the next two years.
We have a shared responsibility to achieve a state where people are healthy, our environment is clean, and children and people with long-term needs are cared for and protected. These things don’t happen by accident. Good health and quality of life for all Washingtonians depends upon the investments the state makes.
Part three in a series: “Special Legislative Session: The Big Picture.” At a time when children and families need job training, affordable housing and other economic supports the most, Washington state’s investment in economic security over the last few years has decreased dramatically.
The recession took a huge toll on Washingtonians – today over 900,000 live in poverty, an increase of 200,000 since the recession began in 2008. However, lawmakers have not responded accordingly.
The House and Senate budgets would cut the very things that families need. The Senate, for instance, would make severe cuts to services that help low-income families find or keep a job, slicing almost four times more from those services than the House (see chart).
The majority of the cuts in both budgets are in the WorkFirst program – Washington state’s primary way to help low-income families find and keep jobs, and mitigate the harm poverty inflicts on children. The cuts are characterized as savings from lower caseloads, but that is misleading. While poverty has risen dramatically since 2008, lawmakers have made it harder for families to get WorkFirst and have kicked people off the program altogether, resulting in lower caseloads than anticipated. Two out of every three people kicked off is a child, even though children have experienced the largest increase in poverty compared to other age groups.
Instead of reinvesting the additional resources from the caseload decline in WorkFirst and making it easier for parents to get the services they need to get back to work, lawmakers want to use the money for other things. The House budget, however, does start to rebuild some opportunities for low-income children and families, while the Senate would make additional cuts that make it harder for low-income parents to find work, afford child care and housing, and meet other basic needs.
Key differences in the two budgets include (see table):
- The House budget devotes $8 million to emergency housing services for families on WorkFirst. The Senate makes no investment in homelessness prevention. Over 27,000 children in Washington state are homeless, a 47 percent increase since the recession began.
- The House budget invests $28 million to improve access to quality, affordable child care and early learning by increasing the subsidy rate for Working Connections Child Care (WCCC). The Senate budget would cut $17.4 million from WCCC, leaving 4,000 families without help.
- If WorkFirst needs increase beyond forecasted levels, the House sets aside $12.7 million to provide a modest level of assistance so families can meet basic needs, like food and shelter. The Senate not only fails to reinvest in WorkFirst, it makes additional cuts to the program.
- The Senate budget cuts $2.7 million by limiting WorkFirst assistance to the size of a family when it enters the program, offering no additional assistance if another child is born.
- The Senate eliminates income assistance for people with disabilities and gets rid of services that currently connect Washingtonians with disabilities to additional federal resources that they may be eligible for.
- The Senate would spend $9.4 million to increase food assistance for immigrant families, making them eligible for three-quarters of the assistance non-immigrant families can get through the State Nutritional Assistance Program. The House maintains the current level of assistance for immigrant families, which is half of what non-immigrant families are eligible for.
Over the next week, we will continue our series on "Special Legislative Session: The Big Picture."
Part two in a series, "Special Legislative Session: The Big Picture." The House and Senate budget plans reflect two very different sets of values when it comes to promoting thriving communities. While the House maintains or increases Washington state's investment in safe neighborhoods, access to a just legal system, and housing support, the Senate drastically reduces funding for these priorities. When the legislature reconvenes next week, lawmakers should make funding for investments that build strong communities a priority.
As the graph below shows, the Senate plans to cut over $350 million from these resources, while the House increases investments by $29 million.
Proposed cuts by the Senate include:
- $3 million from legal services that help people with low incomes defend their legal rights in problems involving family safety, shelter, and health care. Women and children have a greater need for legal services than others, and domestic violence survivors have the highest need of all, according to the Office of Civil Legal Aid.
- $127 million for part-time state employees’ and teachers’ health care plans. The proposal would give workers extra compensation with the expectation that they will enroll in the health benefits exchange created under the federal health care law. But the incentives may not be enough to cover the costs of premiums in the exchange, leaving employees without an affordable option for health coverage. Given the uncertainty of costs in the exchange, this proposal could harm workers and impede our ability to attract the best teachers and people to deliver public services.
- $30 million from basic assistance for people who are unable to work due to a disability. These supports include housing assistance, help with transportation, and personal hygiene products like toilet paper and toothpaste.
The Senate also cuts over $23 million from funds dedicated to keeping children and families from becoming homeless. By contrast, the House makes an investment of $7 million towards homelessness prevention.
See table for more detail on House and Senate comparisons.
All children and families should have the opportunity to live in communities that are safe, clean, and provide a good quality of life. As noted earlier in this series, investments in our shared values of education and opportunity, thriving communities, economic security, healthy people and a clean environment are needed to create an economy that works for all Washingtonians.
Over the next week, we will continue our series on "Special Legislative Session: The Big Picture."