The 2000 legislative session may be remembered as the year government gridlock was so bad it seemed as if state legislators had to walk through a sea of caramel before they could take any action. The House was split evenly between Democrats and Republicans and citizen initiatives captured nearly all the attention.
In preparation for this year’s session, which began Monday, voters poured a shell of chocolate over that caramel mess in Olympia. Not only is the House still evenly split — requiring a repeat of last year’s awkward power sharing – but the Democrats hold a mere one-seat majority in the Senate and this November’s citizen initiatives have made the budget situation nearly impossible.
The two school initiatives approved overwhelmingly by voters in November require more than $900 million in additional funding over the next biennium to decrease class size and give raises to teachers. Health insurance costs are on the rise again and government financial experts say insurance for state workers demands an increasingly larger percentage of the state budget. Although the state of Washington does have a significant budget reserve — built up because of state spending limits approved by voters years ago in Initiative 601 — legislators and the governor say there’s only enough money saved up to cover these new costs for about one budget cycle.
“How are we going to accommodate all of these increases without making significant cuts in state services?” asks Rep. Jim McIntire, who represents the 46th district in North Seattle and was on the panel at the Coalition for a Jewish Voice’s 2001 Legislative Issues Forum last Sunday.
Various solutions will be tossed around Olympia this year, including raising the I-601 limit, increasing the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax, which was cut to $30 last year, cutting government spending across the board and even creating a state income tax. But any major changes will have to have bi-partisan support to overcome the challenge of a politically split legislature.
All these issues make life difficult for our state legislators, and even more challenging for the lobbyists who advocate on behalf of Jewish community interests in Olympia. If the government can’t figure out how to pay its bills without cutting funding for social services, then the Jewish community will have to find a way to make up for budget shortfalls at Jewish Family Service, the Stroum Jewish Community Center and the Kline Galland Center.
“It’s important for us to think about how we can begin to fight back to protect social services,” says McIntire, who is not Jewish but seemed on the verge of being adopted by the community after his sympathetic comments at the Jan. 7 forum.
Rep. Laura Ruderman, a Jewish Democrat representing the 45th district in the Redmond area, said part of the problem is that voters don’t understand how their taxes are being spent. “People want lower taxes and more services … and they believe it all can be done with efficiency,” she said, adding that one of her main jobs is voter education and outreach.
Sen. Adam Kline, a Jewish Democrat from the 37th district in South Seattle, agrees: “We need to publicize the needs and users of state money … So many people really do believe we can have our cake and eat it too” and save tax money at the same time. As evidence, the legislators pointed out that voters approved citizen initiatives calling for increased state spending in the same election they demanded a decrease in taxes.
If the Coalition for a Jewish Voice and the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle can get a hearing for their issues this session in the Legislature, here are their top priorities for action:
• The No. 1 priority for the Jewish Federation this year is maintaining Medicaid reimbursement rates for the Kline Galland Center. Medicaid is both a state and federal program. The state determines at what rate nursing homes will be reimbursed for the care they give to their residents. Kline Galland’s level of care is substantially above the average for nursing homes across the state. About 65 percent of the people living at the Kline Galland Home are on Medicaid.
During the 1998 legislative session, lawmakers imposed a ceiling on Medicaid reimbursement rates that is scheduled to go into effect in July 2002. This ceiling is well below the service level currently at Kline Galland. The Federation’s new government affairs associate, Remy Trupin, says Kline Galland will have its Medicaid reimbursement cut between $750,000 and $1 million a year after the ceiling is imposed. That money will have to be replaced by community fund-raising or services at Kline Galland may decrease.
One thing working in Trupin’s favor as a lobbyist is that nearly every nursing home in the state of Washington will be impacted by the new Medicaid rules, so they will all be fighting to have the rules changed this year.
• A collection of issues that the Coalition for a Jewish Voice and the Jewish Federation will be working on together involve government services for families, children and the disabled. Both organizations are concerned about maintaining funding for public transportation and special-needs transportation for the elderly and disabled.
• Both are concerned about maintaining funding to the General Assistance-Unemployable Program, which helps a significant number of clients of the JFS Emergency Services program and the Seattle Association for the Jewish Disabled. The GA-U program helps pay for housing, case management and mental health services. The governor’s budget indicates Gary Locke wants to protect this program.
• Both organizations will also lobby to maintain and enhance funding for nutrition and hunger programs and to continue services for families moving from welfare to work. These families need help finding and keeping affordable housing and getting quality childcare for their children. Emergency dental services for low-income individuals is also a target of cuts.
“I think everything is probably up for question when you have no money,” Trupin said. “There are so many competing priorities this session.”