Much to Advocate for in Olympia This Month

Legislative building in Olympia, Washington photo by Joe Mabel

As Advocacy Chair of the Seattle-King County Advisory Council on Aging & Disability Services (ADS Advisory Council), I have followed developments in the state legislature with great interest. In a little under a month, the legislature wraps up business for 2021, culminating the most challenging yet ambitious session in recent memory. While a lot can happen between now and April 25, allow me to recap the session so far and share what I am most excited about.

The 2021 legislative session kicked off on January 11 with the health and economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic far from under control. The pandemic-driven recession and lack of federal financial support posed major budget concerns for the state over the next two biennia. While revenue forecasts improved over time, there was still a $3.2 billion shortfall to reconcile through spending cuts, tax increases, or rainy-day funds. To tackle the immediate and concurrent crises facing our state, the legislature pivoted to a completely virtual session and narrowed its priorities to budget, heath and economic recovery, police reform, and climate change.

The ADS Advisory Council advocates for programs and services that promote quality of life for older adults, family caregivers, and people with disabilities throughout King County. Our 2021 legislative priorities reflect what many of us need to survive a global pandemic that has disproportionally impacted older adults, BIPOC communities, and people with disabilities:

  • Progressive revenue to fix our upside-down tax code and invest fully in our communities.
  • Case management services to help vulnerable people meet basic daily needs and shelter safely in home.
  • Affordable broadband service and devices to address social isolation and promote social engagement.
  • Affordable housing and robust protections to keep as many of our neighbors stably and safely sheltered.
  • Affordable prescription drugs to ensure no one has to skip life-saving medications to make ends meet.

Early in the legislative session, advocates like my peers on the Council were worried about proposed austerity cuts to the long-term care supports and services (LTSS) budget and our ability to continue providing quality and cost-effective care to approximately 47,000 statewide clients in their homes. Legislators understood the critical role that Area Agencies on Aging (AAAs) and our community partners have played during the pandemic—quickly mobilizing the Aging Network to serve on the front lines—and rejected cuts that would have had a steep human cost. However, as the pandemic stretches into its 14th month, we need steady investments to the LTSS budget to offset rising costs such as:

  • $10 million to help AAAs backfill their Medicaid case management programs that are struggling with a 10 percent reduction in workforce. AAAs have overspent budgets to ensure client services continue without disruption.
  • $16.3 million to ensure access to COVID-19 vaccine for LTSS clients. Funds are necessary for locating vaccine appointments, organizing client transportation, interpretation, and other services, and ensuring resources for home visits to vaccinate those who cannot access clinics and mass vaccination sites.
  • $25.4 million to support a higher Personal Needs Allowance that allows in-home clients to keep more of their income to pay for food, housing, and other basic needs. This will be especially important for long-term care clients when the Governor’s moratorium on evictions and rent increases ends.
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Advocating for affordable housing and homelessness interventions in King County has been a long-term priority for the ADS Advisory Council, but the pandemic exacerbated the need for stronger housing protections now. There were several bills introduced in the legislature to increase funding and provide local governments the means to respond to challenges. I’m closely watching ESHB 1236 or the “just cause” eviction bill that will prohibit 20-day, no-cause evictions and require landlords to provide a legitimate business reason for evictions. I also support E2SSB 5160 that prohibits landlords from terminating rental leases and pursuing 20-day eviction notices during public health emergencies. The bill ensures renters behind on rent can access repayment plans and mediation before eviction filings in court and the right to legal counsel at eviction hearings. Both bills passed their respective chamber of origin in early March and were scheduled for public hearings in the opposite chambers before the end of March.

Another ambitious undertaking by the legislature this year will be fixing our state’s upside-down tax code and finding progressive revenue sources to fully fund education, healthcare, housing, and crucial safety nets. According to the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, Washington state has the most regressive tax system in the country—the bottom 20 percent income earners pay 17.8 percent of their income in state and local taxes, while the top one percent of earners only pay three percent in taxes. We rely on property and sales taxes to raise revenue, which places an unfair financial burden on the lowest income residents. That is why I’m excited about ESSB 5096, which would apply a seven percent tax rate to high-end capital gains over $250,000 per individual or $500,000 for couples. This bill applies to the highest one percent of income earners in Washington state and could raise $550 million per year in revenue. This bill was narrowly voted out of Senate in early March and had a successful hearing in the House Finance Committee on March 15.

Similarly, I’m watching the progress on ESHB 1297 or Working Families Tax Rebate that would refund a portion of the state sales tax ($500–$950, depending on family size) to families that qualify for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. Unlike many rebates, families that file using an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) would be eligible. This bill was overwhelmingly passed in the House and is on its way to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, where it will need support. If passed, both pieces of legislation would be substantial steps towards advancing racial equity, deepening economic justice, and providing a boost to Washington state’s economy.

There is so much to track and advocate for in Olympia this session and I remain humbled—yet optimistic—about what’s ahead. Federal relief is on its way via the American Rescue Plan, along with increased vaccine supply and appointment availability in King County, another positive economic forecast for the state, and other signs that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

For us advocates, the work never really stops, but thank you for pushing hard this year to fight for our old normal.

Larry LowContributor Larry Low’s 36-year career as a social worker included work at the VA Medical Center, where he monitored nursing facility patient care plans and worked with families on patients’ care needs following discharge. As a pastor at Madrona Grace Presbyterian Church, Larry visits members who are in the hospital or nursing care facilities. He also volunteers at the Chinese Information Service Center and Kin On Community Care Center.

Washington State Capitol Legislative Building photo at top by Joe Mabel.

This article originally appeared in the April 2021 issue of AgeWise King County.