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Guest commentary / State budget

Put off social services again at our peril

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By Brendan Williams
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, Gov. Gregoire's final proposed state budget should signal, if not the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning of budget denial.
At last we have squarely before us the titanic demographic collision between our kids' needs, as recognized by the Washington Supreme Court's landmark McCleary education decision, and an aging society's long-term care needs.
While Gov. Gregoire shows some of the price of funding education, her budget -- even with new revenue -- would continue denying teachers and K-12 staff an initiative-guaranteed cost-of-living salary increase. Class sizes would only drop for high-poverty kids in the second grade or below. This is triage, not salvation.
And schoolkids are the lucky ones.
Even after raising over $1 billion through new taxes or continuation of expiring ones, the governor's budget would freeze cost-based nursing home reimbursement in time -- to 2007 -- through July 2015. This brings new meaning to the expression, "The check is in the mail." Can you imagine your employer suddenly announcing you will get paid based on what you spent in 2007? The state would save $28.6 million while removing equal federal matching funds from the economy.
Almost satirically, the budget would base some long-term care funding on resurrecting the same taxes -- on pop and candy -- voters repealed in 2010 through Initiative 1107. That's impossible.
Because home care funding for those hoping to be paid $10.53 an hour for lifesaving care, and over 70 percent of nursing home reimbursement, goes to wages, failure to fund these programs is economically de-stimulatory. This epitome of a penny-wise, pound-foolish approach loses the state a federal dollar for every dollar "saved." Washington already trails even Michigan with one of the nation's worst labor under-utilization rates -- 17.1 percent -- of those jobless or only marginally attached to jobs.
Further, a state that arbitrarily slashed incontinence care and meal preparation hours would now cut rates for 8,275 with disabilities who live more than 45 minutes from shopping or lack on-site access to laundry. As we read more about the home life of wealthy Connecticut school shooter Adam Lanza, our state would also save $11 million by denying 1,100 desperate families assistance in caring for family members with developmental disabilities.
Why not, right? Unlike those who enjoy tax preferences, the vulnerable cannot grease the way with political contributions. Meanwhile, the threat of federal Medicare cuts hangs overhead like a sword of Damocles.
Now imagine, as we must, no new taxes or extensions are enacted. We must assume, then, that the over $1 billion lost from the governor's budget will be subtracted further from long-term care and other "discretionary" spending areas. After all, on Dec. 20, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its McCleary decision by stating, "Slowing the pace of funding cuts ... does not equate to forward progress"; meanwhile, huge federal "fiscal cliff" education cuts loomed that the state would have to make up for. In stark relief, this is the choice Washingtonians are presented with. Our outgoing governor should be thanked for at least hinting at realities others ignore.
Washington is very easily the most progressive state failing to progress. Years of settling for less have created a learned helplessness. Cuts are decried by politicians at the beginning of each legislative session only to be celebrated at session's end, a dissonance forced by political discourse that emphasizes -- for obvious reasons -- success and not failure. Thus we collectively swirl down the drain, unconscious of how far we have traveled.
One advocate described tears over the social services component of this budget rollout -- tears accompanying budgets for the past few years. Isn't it time we stopped crying and started doing something?

Olympia attorney and former state representative Brendan Williams is a long-term care advocate.

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