Washington state’s 2018 Legislative Session was a historic one with a slate of new bills that reflects the long-standing efforts made by our community members, advocates and our advocacy partner, the Statewide Poverty Action Network.
Ending on March 8, the session was a short yet productive one. Instead of creating a biannual budget, the state implemented a supplemental budget that included spending updates and additions.
“There has been a combination of a lot of momentum-building on some of these issues over the last several years – because they haven’t passed – and then this gridlock disappeared all of a sudden. Everything moved in a way that none of us really expected.” ~Marcy Bowers, Advocacy & Statewide Poverty Action Network Director
According to Marcy Bowers, Director of both Poverty Action and Solid Ground’s Advocacy Department, it was a historic year because of the passing of a number of important, progressive policies impacting a lot of people. Among the “wins” are a slate of democracy reforms, criminal justice reforms, student loan reforms, and much-needed updates to safety net and housing services. Added to the substantial investments in community support programs in the supplemental budget, it was truly a big year!
Poverty Action elevates the voices of families who work hard but still struggle to get by, mobilizing members from across Washington state to come together, get educated, and act to make sure elected officials work for all Washington families.
Marcy says “nuanced pressure” is required to achieve a winning session. This year’s success was the result of ongoing pressure from advocates’ and community members’ testimonies, phone calls and emails. Nonetheless, the sheer volume of bills that passed came as a surprise to the anti-poverty advocates, and it feels “monumental.”
She adds, “There has been a combination of a lot of momentum-building on some of these issues over the last several years – because they haven’t passed – and then this gridlock disappeared all of a sudden.”
Poverty Action played a direct role in many key areas of this year’s session including:
Criminal Justice Reform
- Ban the Box (statewide): Prevents employers from screening out previously incarcerated folks by banning the “Have you been convicted of a felony?” question on job applications. This has been in place in Seattle and Spokane, and is now in effect statewide.
- Legal Financial Obligation (LFO) System Reform: Prohibits interest on all non-restitution fees and fines associated with the criminal justice system. Previously, LFO debt accrued at 12% interest, starting during a person’s incarceration. The bill also prohibits reincarceration when people are incapable of paying their LFOs and requires judges to waive or reduce non-restitution interest when petitioned by previously incarcerated individuals. This new law will make a tremendous impact in reducing barriers for people after they leave the prison system.
Student Loan Reform
- Student Loan Bill of Rights: Requires student loan servicers to be licensed in Washington. Creates an office of the student loan borrower advocate to help assist people who complain about how they are being treated by their student loan servicers and student loan debt collectors.
- Student Opportunity, Assistance and Relief (SOAR) Act: Places restrictions around wage garnishment and loss of professional licenses if people default on their student loans.
Housing & Safety Net Services
Some immediately helpful changes around the housing services safety net were made this session. Our state has two programs for people with disabilities who live on low incomes:
- Housing and Essential Needs (HEN): Provides direct housing assistance and essential needs for people with physical/mental disabilities. This program is for people whose disability is diagnosed as temporary (less than 12 months).
- Aged, Blind, or Disabled (ABD): Provides cash-assistance for program participants who are 65+, blind, or have a physical/mental disability that is expected to last for at least 12 months. At this time, the cash benefit is $197 per month and is used for paying rent, electricity bills and other needs.
This session, a bill passed stating that those who are on or about to qualify for ABD and are at risk of homelessness – or those permanently disabled and at risk of homelessness – can keep their HEN housing benefit. Also, people facing homelessness who are obtaining treatment for substance use disorder can access HEN while they go through treatment. These changes are technical but provide immediate access to housing for people who didn’t have access before.
In addition, a whole slate of housing-related bills passed, including one that bans Source of Income Discrimination, prohibiting landlords from saying they don’t want to rent to certain tenants because of their source of income. This change has already been put into effect in the City of Seattle, but it is now effective statewide.
Poverty Action also increased asset limits for public assistance, like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and HEN, meaning that people will no longer have to dig themselves deep into a financial hole to qualify for assistance during a crisis. Applicants will now be able to retain up to $6,000 and a vehicle valued at $10,000 and still access assistance.
The legislature invested $9 million to increase the monthly TANF program grant. This is the highest the grant has ever been and means that a family of four will now have an additional $58 per month of extra financial support. Ever since TANF faced major cuts during the worst part of the recession in 2011, advocates have been working hard to restore the budget back to pre-recession levels. It finally happened this session, with an additional 1% on top.
With so many bills bottled up for so long finally passing, Poverty Action and their members earned a well-deserved celebration. Moving forward, Poverty Action will continue listening to community members and ask themselves “what can be bigger and bolder?” They will connect with more people through outreach and listening sessions – including people living on low incomes, case managers, attorneys, community colleges, and more – to build powerful collaborations to make impactful change.
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