Session in review

Paid family and sick leave, bills supporting foster children among successes

There was little doubt in January that members of Washington State Legislature were in for a lengthy spell in Olympia.

By the end of the third special session on July 20, they had been there longer than any group to come before them: 193 days.

And the members of the 36th District delegation say it wasn’t easy.

“It is a harder gig than people think,” said Sen. Reuven Carlyle. “It has impacted our quality of life and our ability to serve your community, and people’s financial ability to work at their other jobs and I can’t stress enough, I think we all owe such an incredible debt to our spouses and partners and children and friends for supporting us.”

Rep. Gael Tarleton became increasingly familiar with the planning challenges of multiple special sessions as House Floor Leader.

“The biggest thing that happens is people have made personal arrangements for family vacations, family weddings, family events, reunions, surgeries that they had to schedule, so getting a majority from the democratic party onto the floor was the No. 1 consideration,” she said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Noel Frame couldn’t help but think of how difficult an indefinitely long session is hurdle for many to serve at all.

“I think it’s very discouraging for people like me, who do have to work, to actually be able to stay in the legislature,” she said. “I’m lucky, I’ve found a good employer, but it’s not true for a lot of people.”

Logistic frustrations aside, the three members of the Legislature do believe there was some good to come out of the marathon session, albeit not as much as they may have wanted.

When asked about successes of the session, all three all noted the passage of a paid family leave bill as one of the biggest victories in Olympia.

Starting in 2020, Washington will require paid family and medical leave, with both workers and employers paying into the system. Nearly all workers in the state will have access to 12 weeks of paid time off for a new birth or adoption, or to care for a sick family member, or 16 total weeks of both types of leave.

“It is a tremendous commitment to the people of this state,” Tarleton said, “and in the same way we figured out how to make pensions work in this state, and keep protection of pensions, I think paid family leave will become such an integral part of keeping our people healthy and keeping the work place healthy, and giving people respite from the pressure of thinking they can’t stay home to take care of someone who’s sick, they can’t take care of a family member in an emergency, because they’re going to lose their job.”

Frame said there are “few things that have a bigger impact on accessing the American dream,” than paid family leave, particularly for women.

“You have a lot of women that are the primary wage earner in their families and going back to work after just a few weeks after giving birth, it’s not good for moms, it’s not good for babies, and it’s really not good for the work force,” she said.

Each member of the delegation also had their own individual accomplishments.

A bill introduced by Carlyle regarding the educational outcomes for kids in foster care passed both the senate and house unanimously, and was signed by the governor in April. That bill establishes a system where students in foster care — along with homeless students — would receive partial credit for coursework completed before withdrawing or transferring, and would be applied to academic progress regardless of enrollment date.

Tarleton was happy to see $200 million in funding for career and technical education to support jobs in the trades included in the budget.

“This is to really tackle the absolutely crushing consequences of high school dropouts,” she said. “We need career and technical education to support jobs in every trade we have in this state.”

The third-term representative was also happy with the passage of a bill that strengthens solar panel incentives, and opening the state’s program to more residential and commercial customers.

“That wrapped up five years of nonstop negotiating on trying to figure out how were we going to get to solar, without having to compromise and do a lot of bad policy bills in return,” she said.

Meanwhile, Frame was pleased that a demonstration pilot that will assign a lawyer to foster children in Grant and Lewis counties by their first court hearing after being removed from the home.

“The state has an attorney, their parents have an attorney, later down the line the foster parents may have an attorney, but the kids don’t,” she said. “We’ve seen in other states that when you give kids attorneys, they get to permanent placement faster, they have fewer changes in foster homes, and it’s better outcomes for them, academically and otherwise.”

Her hope is that the pilot can provide data that shows the effort improves outcomes, and perhaps even saves the state money.

In other areas, the delegation believes they made progress on other policy issues.

Frame wants to reform the state’s auto decline laws, which automatically send juvenile defendants to adult court, to stand adult charges for certain crimes. Right now, it’s at the prosecutor’s discretion, and Frame wants the decision to be in the hands of juvenile court administrators.

.”All the research that’s been done on brain science shows us that kids are impulsive, make really poor decisions, and it all has to do with their brain development, which doesn’t complete until they’re 25,” she said.

Tarleton introduced a bill to start a conversation on accelerating the electrification infrastructure in the state, not only for personal vehicles, but public fleets as well.

“We had to start realizing in the same way that the fossil fuel economy needed gas stations so that it could go across the country and vehicles could transport and trade could happen, we need infrastructure for the electrification and reduced emissions economy,” she said.

She also introduced the Clean Energy First Act to move beyond the 2006 Clean Energy Independence Act — with new goals for reduced emissions and higher energy efficiency — and is continuing her push to protect the maritime industrial sector by modernizing the North Pacific Fishing Fleet.

Where there was at least some trepidation from the group was the legislature’s basic education funding solution to comply with the 2012 McCleary decision.

As a general statement, Carlyle said he found the funding plan to be relatively well designed (special education not withstanding), but that he still had, “deep reservations, frustration, and outright opposition to the major elements of the financing,” and that there’s still much work to be done.

“It’s too historic, and it’s too comprehensive to sort of put a bow on it, and wrap it up and move on completely,” he said.

In that way, he compared it to the logistics of marijuana legalization, and how, “we’re never sort of completely done regulating it.”

Tarleton was frustrated that negotiations didn’t begin until the second special session, and that when they did, they became an either/or proposition for a funding solution. Sh

“I believe in diversified portfolios, so it’s never a single-source supply, it is a multi-source strategy for fully funding, not just K-12, but all of the responsibilities of the state,” she said.

Frame found the McCleary solution to be her biggest frustration of the session. While she appreciates the additional funding, she said that because of the property tax swap, it’s not truly a net increase of $7 billion for schools, when the actual amount needed to fully fund needed to be substantially larger.   

“It’s pretty disappointing to see additional tax breaks being given to corporations and industries while we exacted a massive property tax increase on middle class families in the Puget Sound,” she said. “I don’t think it’s fair, I don’t think it’s right, and I hope that we’ll go back and fix it next session.”

That wasn’t the only disappointment on the part of the legislators.

Carlyle said the hyperpartisan environment in Olympia made for difficult dealings.

“This is one of the dark sides of divided government, and we have this sort of this romantic image that divided government leads to more balanced decision making, and the data doesn’t bear that out from the last couple of years,” he said. “I would argue the senate majority has moved, with the loss of Sen. [Andy] Hill and Sen. [Steve] Litzow, the core of that caucus changed. It moved substantially to the right.”

Then, there was the specter of the decisions being made in the other Washington.

Tarleton said the pressure was immense from the start of the session, with constant monitoring of the risk that federal actions could put in jeopardy the ability to implement state laws.

But the biggest uncertainty was about healthcare.

If the state were to lose its Medicaid matching dollars from the federal government, Carlyle called the potential funding gap, “bigger than McCleary.”

“It is incredibly serious, and the juxtaposition of the implosion in Washington, D.C., combined with our need to be fiscally responsible to prepare for unintended consequences is important,” he said.

The funding cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency was another national decision with local impacts, with White House initially proposing a 93 percent cut to the EPA’s budget for Puget Sound restoration (in July the House Appropriations Committee bucked that recommendation, voting to maintain the full $28 million in fiscal year 2018).

“That uncertainty of knowing you could get a stop work order at any moment, you could get a budget freeze at any moment from an administrator or a cabinet secretary, that throws chaos into every plan, and hundreds of thousands of people are at risk of losing their job, because they’re working on that grant,” she said. “That’s true for our universities, our colleges, our nonprofits, and state agencies, and local agencies that are getting the local flow of the money through the system, from a federal grant into the state block down to the local agencies.”

Even after a session that stretched well into July, legislators left Olympia with work unfinished. The state’s $4 billion capital budget remains in limbo, held up by Senate Republicans seeking a water-rights bill to address the state Supreme Court’s Hirst decision.

Frame called that decision by Republicans to tie water rights to the capital budget, “really inappropriate,” while Tarleton referred to it as “obscene.”

“The capital budget should never be held hostage to anything, except what is in that capital budget,” she said.

The two members of the House were among the 92 yes votes that approved the capital budget, only to see it stall in the Senate.

Among the projects in the 36th District included in the capital budget are improvements to a commercial kitchen at the Millionair Club to provide job training, along with money for the Seattle Opera and Seattle Repertory Theatre. Money for the modernization of Magnolia Elementary, and for the new simulator center at the Seattle Maritime Academy, is also in that budget.

“It’s just so frustrating,” Carlyle said. “I mean I think it’s fair to say that this is priority one, we haven’t closed the books, we are working on it, we have teams who are working on both the capital and on the Hirst issue, and we’re trying to break the logjam.”

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