Commentary: Is any state fund safe during a budget year?

By Brendan Williams

In 2007, following a years-long legislative push, Washington state adopted a paid family leave law. Much fanfare accompanied the new law’s passage, to begin providing benefits Oct. 1, 2009. One advocacy group proclaimed it “a giant step forward for Washington’s mothers, fathers, children and families.”

There was a small catch, though — the law wasn’t funded.

It had passed the Senate on a bipartisan 32-17 margin with a small payroll tax, a tax that remained intact through the House policy committee I served on, before being gutted in the House at the behest of Gov. Chris Gregoire and House Speaker Frank Chopp. Both had suggested punting to voters. Many angry former Senate supporters then voted against the eviscerated bill. The Olympian put it well: “All sizzle, no steak — it’s a pretty lousy way to legislate.”

I agreed; finding this empty exercise way too mortifying to even mention to constituents, let alone brag about as we were urged to. The Legislature first voted in 2009 to delay implementation, doing so again in 2011 and 2013.

This year finally brought a funded law. With bemusement I read about its signing, where Chopp stood front-and-center crowing about “the largest expansion of Social Security in Washington state in the last 50 years” — and claiming he pushed it for 30 years. Credit really goes to those like Des Moines Sen. Karen Keiser, sponsor of the 2007 law who never gave up, Everett Rep. June Robinson, advocacy groups, and those in the business community who accepted the reform’s public appeal. As The Herald editorialized in February, “For a decade Washington state has had a paid family leave law — but in name only.”

Memories are short in politics, where each session sometimes seems like the movie “Groundhog Day.” Yet we must learn from the past lest we be bamboozled in the present. A similar pattern exists with regard to K-12 funding, with the Legislature again declaring the state’s “paramount duty” has — at long last — been met.

Yet what Chopp trumpeted as “a great victory for funding our public schools” is already being challenged before the Washington Supreme Court for its inadequacy under the court’s McCleary decision. The Seattle Public Schools that he represents declared, in an Aug. 25 press release, “The public is being told the Legislature solved the state’s education funding crisis. The truth is, they did not.” Similarly false claims have been made biennially since the McCleary litigation began, in 2007.

As tenuous as this year’s budget is it would not surprise me to see the new Family and Medical Leave Insurance Account tapped into someday to prop up the operating budget. Why not? That’s been the fate of the Tobacco Prevention and Control Account since 2009, even though, in passing I-773 to increase the cigarette tax, 66 percent of voters required the state to spend proceeds on smoking cessation. Indeed, the current state budget feasts upon $328 million in fund transfers, including a funding stream that voters, in 1988, had dedicated to toxic cleanup.

Time will tell if such trickery, in the long-term, makes progress more substantive than an unfunded law did over a decade’s time. Will that law’s long ordeal teach us anything?

Brendan Williams is an attorney, former state representative (2005-10), and frequent writer from Olympia.

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