There were two elephants in the room at this year’s annual budget and policy conference hosted by Washington State Budget & Policy Center on November 16: the Washington state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision and president-elect Donald Trump.
Hundreds of attendees gathered in the Washington State Convention Center in all-day discussions on how state legislators should allocate funding in the upcoming session, which begins in January and ends in April or potentially later. The morning started gloomy, as Washington State Budget & Policy Center director Misha Werschkul kicked off the conference articulating feelings of anxiety for the future of Washington state after the elections the week before.
“At Budget and Policy Center we are proud to be a nonpartisan organization and we don’t comment on candidates,” Werschkul said, “but we can’t ignore the impact of the hateful rhetoric of this election and the harmful policies that have been and are being proposed. These policies that are proposed on the federal level could have a real impact on our state budget and on the people of Washington state.”
A plenary panel attempted to answer some questions about the future of what is commonly called McCleary—the state Supreme Court ruling reached in 2012, which required the state to fully fund public education and rely less on local district levies, as has been the case for years. McCleary v. State of Washington is a hallmark case for education in the state that was led by main plaintiff Stephanie McCleary and her family, who live in the Chimacum School District. Lawmakers in Washington have until 2018 to figure out how to work with their budget to allocate more funding for schools.
Panelist Nate Gibbs-Bowling, who was named the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year, said that the last time he was in the Convention Center, vice president Joe Biden was speaking. “[Biden] said, ‘Don’t tell me your values, show me your budget and your budget will show me your values,’” Gibbs-Bowling said.
What it means to “fully fund” education has had politicians, non-profit folks and others define different things. For Gibbs-Bowling, it means “clean, mold-free, well-lit classrooms” and appropriate class sizes, as well as providing students with resources they don’t get at home such as breakfast. For panelist Roxana Norouzi, director of education and integration policy at OneAmerica, it means equal opportunity evidenced by equal outcomes and closing of gaps between those who historically have been privileged and those who have been disenfranchised. Norouzi also said that schools and politicians alike need to address institutional racism now more than ever in anticipation of Trump administration, “or else we’re putting billion of dollars into broken systems.”
If lawmakers couldn’t decide what fully funding education entails, they are not sure how much it will cost or how to cover it either.
When panel moderator and KUOW reporter Ann Dornfeld asked panelists what they thought were best strategies to fund McCleary, answers varied. Norouzi called for progressive tax and revenue.
Norouzi said: “We talked this morning about sales tax and how that taxes the poor and low-income families at a much higher rate. And we actually need to really reform our tax system so the brunt doesn’t fall on people of color and low-income families. We’re looking at long-term sustainability and we’re actually building the political power in our communities for voters to back up progressive revenue measures.”
Lew Moore, president and CEO of Washington Research Council, said according to the political reality in the state right now, there is no chance of implementing an income tax anytime soon. Moore said that he saw some form of a levy swap, and closing of some tax loopholes as some of possible paths for funding.
Echoing the theme of acknowledging intersecting barriers that keep Washingtonians from being successful, another panel addressed possible strategies to significantly reduce the number of children and families living in poverty.
Lori Pfingst, currently chief of programs and policy for the Economic Services Administration of the state’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), kicked off the morning breakout session by presenting jarring statistics of poverty in Washington state as experienced by people according to race, marital status, place of birth—in or outside of the United States—and disability, to name a few. The data, which was collected in 2014, described poverty as people earning below 200% of the federal poverty level, which translates to $40,000 for a family of three. The data shows that 57% of Latino families in Washington state fall under this description. The number is slightly better for Native Americans at 52% and way better for Japanese families at 27%. Overall, though, Pfingst said that 30% of people in Washington are struggling to make ends meet.
Mariah Mitchell from Auburn is one of many Washingtonians living in intergenerational poverty. She said that she works for $10 an hour, is on food stamps, has a disabled child, and a conviction on her record, which led to eviction from her previous home. She said that the judge decided to not charge her, yet it didn’t matter to the property owner who kicked her out. She was demanding for legislation to protect people from evictions be introduced in the upcoming legislative session.
“I’m literally on the battlefield. I have solid grounds working with every agency [such as] Seattle Housing Authority, King County Housing Authority. I’m dealing with everything and you guys are slow. You’re super slow, you’re gonna have chaos before you even get anything passed,” she said to Rep. David Sawyer and Rep. Hans Zieger.
Julie Watts asked panelists to address what could happen with social programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), if they are cut or dramatically changed under a Trump administration, as has been proposed.
Rep. Zieger, from the Republican party, said that there needs to be commitment to work together “to make sure we’re stepping up and the federal government steps down.” Rep. Sawyer, a Democrat, called for “loud voices” from the Republican party to say the issues of poverty matter a lot to everybody. Meanwhile, Pfingst said that the fight to help those in need, under any administration, has always been an uphill challenge.
Pfingst said: “Somebody said recently to me, as we all took a kind of collective deep breath in health and human services because we have a lot of hard work ahead of us, ‘The work has always been hard.’ The work has always been hard. And so it might be a little harder now, but it’s always been the case. We’re in it for good results for kids and families and we hope you are, too.”
Dr. Manuel Pastor, one of the keynote speakers at the conference, stressed the importance of deep analysis of social justice when one is working with policies. “Equity is something that needs to be baked in, not sprinkled on,” Pastor said.