by Senator Adam Kline (Democrat, 37th District)
This Killing Budget…
I’ve said it before: This recession came like a tornado in the prairie, and did more damage to state government than any purveyor of tax-cut initiatives could have hoped to do. As a result, we made cuts under fiscal pressure that we know are unsustainable, and that will cost us more later on. For lack of space here, I’ll make this quick and a bit general.
Generally: We cut $4.6 billion in the final House-Senate agreement, about $200 million less than the original Senate proposal. Look for more cuts if the Revenue Forecast dips again. We left $727 million in reserves against that possibility. We got the House to agree not to assume some astronomical amount in savings from the privatization of the State Liquor Control Board’s liquor-distribution function.
K-12: We cut teacher salaries only 1.9%, not the original 3%, though we used the latter level for classified staff. We provide only $34 million, not $64 million, for K-3 class size reduction in high-poverty schools.
Higher Ed: We made another $600 million in cuts—made up in part with tuition increases of 14% to 16%, enough to put state college out of the reach of many young people from working families. At the same time, we made cuts in State Need Grant scholarships and in Work-Study funds.
Health Care: The Disability Lifeline program (formerly GAU), which formerly combined a $339 monthly cash grant with medical coverage has been altered. The medical coverage remains; the cash grant is replaced by a smaller rent-assistance grant and an even smaller stipend for essential needs. We expect to see more recipients at the food-banks and hospital emergency rooms. The Children’s Health Program avoided an admissions-freeze, but had its eligibility reduced to 200% of the poverty level. We cut grants to hospitals and community clinics. We preserved the Basic Health program, but continued the freeze on new enrollments.
Other: we reduce management-level jobs in the state agencies by 5-10%, in an effort to reduce pressure to lay off more line staff. We rejected the Governor’s attempt to cut all funds for naturalization of new citizens, keeping $3.3 million for that purpose within DSHS and a separate $386,000 for naturalization classes to be provided by OneAmerica, a South Seattle non-profit organization.
Driving While Poor
Years ago, my friend the late Bob Markholt and other activists for the rights of working folks convinced me to take up a subject that at first blush seemed out of place on a progressive agenda: traffic infractions. When you continue to drive after your license was yanked for failure to pay fines, you’re charge with Driving While Licensed Suspended, in the Third Degree. We don’t throw you in debtors’ prison for failure to pay the increasingly high fine; we just take away the privilege to drive and leave you unable to earn a living.
You may have noticed if like me—I learned to drive in New York—you have earned a first-person familiarity with the traffic code: those fines are now in the hundreds of dollars, since we now rely on those dollars to fund the courts. (No New Taxes!) So in this recession, with increasing unemployment, an increasing percentage of ordinary folks can’t afford to pay. Then they are caught driving with a suspended license—and this time it’s not an infraction, it’s a misdemeanor, a crime. Driving While Poor.
These charges are filed routinely—and that’s the problem. They make up some 30% of the docket in District and Municipal Courts, which are under-funded and over-burdened in this recession. My previous ham-fisted attempts to simply repeal the law were unsuccessful, partly for good reasons—there are, after all, folks who could pay up but just won’t—and for reasons not so good—the cops could never admit it publicly, but they really, really like to be able to search your car, which they can do when they arrest you for a crime, but not an infraction.
So, duh! Don’t file the charge routinely. Make the prosecutors decide which charges to file, make them choose which ones are the real scofflaws and which ones the poor Joes who just need a nudge to the payment window, and maybe a payment-plan. That’s what my bill (SB 5195) did.
One for the Bicyclists and Walkers Among Us
As we learn more about climate change, and adapt our transportation system to the needs for non-automobile alternatives, it makes sense to accord more respect to them in the rules of the road. As a lawyer representing injured people, I have often known of situations in which a negligent driver had hit a pedestrian or bicyclist, causing serious bodily injury, but was punished only for Negligent Driving—a $250 fine. This doesn’t go down easy for bicyclists and pedestrians, myself included. So I filed a bill to allow city and county councils to pass laws creating a new infraction, punishable by up to $5,000, where negligent driving leads directly to the death or serious bodily injury of a pedestrian, bicyclist, wheelchair user, or other “vulnerable user of the public highways.”
One might think this would be a slam-dunk. In fact, it took an extra year of lobbying by a bicycle advocacy organization. Automobile culture pervades the Legislature to an extent greater than in the state’s population—that’s my eyeball analysis, anyway. The stereotype of cyclists as effete liberals is still alive and well among some of my colleagues. Anyway, the bill (SB 5326) passed.
This bill advanced in both houses of the Legislature, as SB 5275 in the Senate and HB 1362 in the House, and was a joint effort between Rep. Tina Orwall and myself. Rep. Orwall, a Democrat from the 33rd District, got the pen for this one, as the House passed her version before the Senate passed mine. Other players were Sen. Steve Hobbs, the chair of the Senate Committee on Financial Institutions, and Rep. Jamie Pedersen, Chair of House Judiciary, both of whom advanced the bill in their respective committees.
This was my second year, and Rep. Orwall’s third, working on this bill. At first, the banks stonewalled our efforts. Their party line, eagerly picked up by their Republican friends, was that the homeowners involved had just made bad choices, over-extending their credit and buying further up-market than their jobs and assets would support. (No mention of the banks’ far grander and more destructive role in the mortgage crisis that lead to an economic meltdown.)
This past year, the crisis made the front page just about every day because literally hundreds of thousands of people—many of them ordinary middle class people who were definitely NOT improvident in their choice of homes—were finding themselves evicted and at a profound loss. The banks apparently decided, to their credit, that stonewalling would no longer work, and that it was better to engage in the legislative process than to continue to lobby for a No vote.
The result was a series of meetings that started in October, chaired by Kim Herman, the director of the Housing Finance Commission and featuring such unusual bedfellows as the regional VPs of major lenders led by the chief lobbyist for the Washington Bankers Association, Legal Services lawyers, mortgage companies, Statewide Poverty Action Network, we two legislators and occasionally the committee chairs.
SB 5275 and HB 1362 require banks which have issued 250 or more Notices of Defaults to Washington borrowers in the preceding year to pay a fee of $250 on each default. The proceeds go primarily to fund housing counselors (lawyers or others who are versed in real estate, the mortgage market, or real property law). A small portion of the proceeds fund the public education and enforcement efforts of the Attorney-General’s Office. The bill gives any homeowner in default the right to seek the advice of a counselor, and the right to seek a personal meeting with a representative of the bank who is authorized to grant a mortgage-modification to a qualified borrower. If that does not resolve the matter, the homeowner can seek mediation before a neutral third-party mediator, at a low cost paid equally by the lender and the borrower.
This bill doesn’t end the foreclosure crisis, and indeed there is little government can do to interfere in private contracts. I will continue to seek passage of legislation, SB 5309, that will require a lender, or the holder of a mortgage, to prove at the time of issuing the Notice of Default, that it is in fact the legal owner of the mortgage. That will be a tougher fight, but it’s necessary. The news still carries stories of people ousted from their homes by Wall Street investment companies that were subsequent purchasers of a mortgage—somebody else’s mortgage, on somebody else’s home, but the papers that might reflect true ownership had not been required. Much is left to do on behalf of the homeowners, who are not responsible for the housing bubble or its burst.
Senator Adam Kline represents the 37th Legislative District in the State Senate, and chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee. He also writes a semi-regular column for the Rainier Valley Post. Senator Kline’s views are his own and do not represent those of the Rainier Valley Post. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.