Lawmakers made progress to promote economic security, but much more is needed

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By Evan Walker, Narver policy fellow, Liz Olson, policy analyst, and Melinda Young-Flynn, communications director - March 20, 2020

Life for all of us in Washington state – and around the country and world – looks vastly different than anyone could have imagined just a few months ago. But in the midst of the deep challenges people are experiencing, we are seeing so much kindness and we are seeing in profound ways the critical role that public services play in our lives. People are reaching out to take care of one another and connect with each other (albeit often virtually) in countless ways. Leaders and workers in our state and local governments are responding as quickly as possible to the massive community needs.

We are being reminded that we are all in this together. We can’t let family, friends, or neighbors fall behind, because our well-being is connected.

Highlights from this legislation session

The Budget & Policy Center’s 2020 legislative priorities aimed to take steps to ensure that Washingtonians with low and moderate incomes have the opportunity to thrive. The legislature made some advances this session that are good starting points to build upon – even though they will inevitably have to act quickly to further address the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on people, communities, and economies throughout our state.

We are being reminded that we are all in this together. We can’t let family, friends, or neighbors fall behind, because our well-being is connected.

In the meantime, it is worth highlighting some of the ways policymakers advanced our policy priorities – as well as other policies that invest in communities – this session. Specifically, it is laudable that the Washington state legislature:

-Devoted $200 million to COVID-19 emergency response to equip state agencies, local governments, and Tribal Nations with critically needed resources to address and contain the spread of disease. They dedicated $175 million to bolster our public health response and the remaining $25 million to unemployment relief.

-Funded a Child Savings Account program study. The study will explore design options and develop an implementation plan to establish Child Savings Accounts at birth for every child born in Washington state.

-Took steps to reverse harmful cuts to WorkFirst/Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) by beginning to ease harsh sanction policies and allowing families where a child is homeless (including temporarily staying with family or friends) to access a time limit extension. The legislature also boosted monthly income for some WorkFirst/TANF recipient families by reinstating the child support pass-through, which allows families to retain a portion of child support payments made on their behalf.

-Invested in early learning by increasing rates for Early Childhood Education Assistance Program and Working Connections Child Care providers, which will help families find care and help early learning professionals make ends meet. The legislature also expanded eligibility for financial assistance to more families struggling to afford care. And they rightly invested in dual-language education to uplift more kids’ cultural and ethnic identities.

-Added funds to address homelessness by: boosting investment in the Housing and Essential Needs program (helping connect people facing illness or disability with support); dedicating funds to increase shelter capacity; eliminating a policy that reduced cash assistance for people in shelters; and investing in the Housing Trust Fund to build more affordable housing.

-Created a statewide Office of Equity that promotes access to equitable opportunities and resources across state departments to reduce disparities and improve outcomes in service delivery areas such as health, education, and employment.

-Raised the minimum value of Women, Infants, and Children Farmers Market Nutrition Program vouchers to help pregnant and nursing moms and families with infants and young kids buy more fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.

-Funded a study to explore how automatic record-clearing would work in the state’s court system, which could lay the groundwork for a statewide system to help people navigate the process of vacating a prior conviction and re-enter the workforce, obtain housing, and regain voting rights.

Missed opportunities

It is disappointing, however, that the legislature didn’t remove the tax break on capital gains or enact a modern, inclusive Working Families Tax Credit. A capital gains tax is an effective way to generate a billion dollars a year of much-needed revenue that can be used to replenish our rainy day fund. And the Working Families Tax Credit can offer both income security and a boost to local economies by providing cash to eligible people.

Had these policies been in place before the COVID-19 outbreak, more Washingtonians might be better able to weather this storm and the state would have more resources for critical public services.

Where we go from here

As we adjust to life in the uncertain time of the coronavirus, it is clear that the legislature will need to continue to take bold action. They need to stabilize our public health and health care systems, rebuild the economic security of hundreds of thousands of us, reform our broken tax code that overly relies on people who already face barriers to economic opportunity, and continue to invest in our communities.

The Budget & Policy Center will be seeking input from partners in the coming weeks about how to best structure an economic stimulus and recovery package to deliver the kind of support our communities need moving forward. We are sensitive to the ways that COVID-19 is worsening inequities for people of color, people with low incomes and hourly service workers, people with disabilities, and other people who are excluded from justice. Keep an eye out on this blog and on Facebook and Twitter in the coming weeks for analysis about the final state budget and recommendations about state and federal policies that will be critical to help protect the well-being of Washingtonians. We truly are all in this together.