With a new governor in office and a reconstituted Senate leadership, the legislative session that begins Monday has the state wondering what solutions will be proposed for a $900 million revenue shortfall and what might be sacrificed to get the budget balanced.
“We’re going to be watching the budget really closely,” said Zach Carstensen, director of government affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, which leads lobbying efforts on issues that affect the Jewish community.
For legislators, the state Supreme Court’s mandate that the legislature fund education as the constitution requires, while maintaining social-service programs, will likely top the list of priorities.
“I think it’s going to be a really big issue this session,” said Sen. David Frockt (D–46th). “We have to get the cost side under control. We have to make sure we do this in a smart way…. The question is, how do we come up with the funding to do it in a divided government with an electorate that is pretty hesitant on the revenue side?”
Carstensen said he is concerned about the sections of the budget that deal with support for refugee and immigration resources, a major program within Jewish Family Service of Greater Seattle, and the Medicaid reimbursement program, which affects nursing facilities such as the Kline Galland Center and its affiliates.
Whether it’s at the state or federal level, Jewish Family Service’s CEO Ken Weinberg is positive his agency’s clients will see cuts in benefits. Given the new makeup of the Senate — an effective 25-24 Republican-plus-two-Democrats majority — and word that funding for refugee resettlement at its current levels is being questioned, “we don’t know at this point whether that will be cut, but we know that it’s something [senators] are seriously looking at,” he said.
“We know the news won’t all be good,” Weinberg said.
Given that none of its funding sources — individuals, Federation, corporations, local, state and federal governments — are truly stable in a still-shaky economy, Weinberg said that to counter cuts his agency needs to continue to diversify its fundraising.
Kline Galland’s CEO Jeff Cohen said he would be making repeated trips to Olympia over the next two months to speak to legislators.
The baseline for Medicaid reimbursement payments to nursing homes — the amount of money the state pays a facility to provide necessary services for its residents — has not changed since 2009, which translates to effective cuts to homes across the state.
“Our costs go up significantly every year,” said Cohen. “We pay our employees more every year to stay competitive, and that’s a market condition. Food costs go up, utility costs go up, the cost of medication goes up every year for our residents…. The reimbursement needs to be related to our increased costs.”
In addition to adding programs in recent years such as its hospice and home-health programs, Kline Galland has been in the process of looking at ways to reduce expenditures. In addition, “we’re going to have to rely more on community support than we have in the past in order to maintain our current level of care,” Cohen said.
While lawmakers don’t expect to see dramatic policy changes such as the passage of same-sex marriage last year, Carstensen said he would be looking closely at laws that affect civil rights.
“We’re going to be looking at ways to make sure that people can express and worship in ways that are consistent with their faith tradition,” he said.
In particular, Carstensen said he would be closely examining the implementation of the new charter school system passed by voter initiative in November.
“While not intentional, when you’re creating something new, there’s always the risk that there can be an oversight, and we want to make sure that Jewish kids [and] Jewish teachers are not going to be unduly discriminated against because of this new system,” he said.
Carstensen said he may pursue reintroduction of a bill that would require a grace period for religious objections to an autopsy. However, Sen. Adam Kline (D–37th), who introduced legislation that passed the Senate last year before it died in the House, told JTNews that aside from an incident in 2011 that spurred the legislation, the need to regulate medical examiners hasn’t been an issue.
“The need for that bill subsided. There really is no need to proceed with it,” Kline said. “The authority is always there to go to court.”
As JTNews was going to press, a letter signed by local rabbis and Jewish community leaders was being sent to lawmakers urging them to consider closing the loophole that allows anyone to purchase firearms at gun shows without requiring background checks, as well as to put more resources into mental health treatment. This position was adopted after the shooting of six women at the Federation’s offices in 2006, and has been reiterated after the mass shooting last month at the elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
“We want to make sure that we have a mental health system that’s responsive, that actually works, and then make sure people on the edges of society, people that have a potential to inflict great harm on our communities, can be caught, can be helped, can be assisted before they step over the precipice,” Carstensen said.
Should lawmakers decide to take up gun control — and media reports across the state suggest they won’t have the appetite to do so — there is no consensus even within political parties on solutions.
Kline said he would be introducing legislation to hold parents responsible for children who use firearms without supervision, following three incidents in the state last year.
And there may be interest in dealing with the mental-health side of the issue.
Frockt said he was heartened by comments made by Sen. Mike Carrell (R–28th) in Wednesday’s Seattle Times that Carrell would seek to improve the mental-health system to treat at-risk individuals.
Referring to the Federation shooting, the Jewish community “understands the collision between firearms and mental health issues,” Frockt said. “How do we have an intervention system that we make sure that people who shouldn’t have access to weapons don’t have them?”
Kline noted that even if a small percentage of the mentally ill population becomes violent — and it isn’t possible to stop every incident — it’s still in the state’s interest to reduce those people’s access to firearms.
“We would seriously decrease the body count, and that’s what the state has to do,” he said. “There’s no solution to the problem that’s 100 percent, but we can certainly make guns less available instantly when anybody wants one.”