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Legislature flexes muscle on welfare budget

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on Feb. 1, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
February 1, 2011 2:07 pm

It has more lawmakers signed on in support than just about any bill I’ve seen, other than maybe the symbolic ones that honor veterans or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or some other beloved person or group.

House Bill 1782 has 79 sponsors from the House’s 98 members. What topic could have inspired such bipartisan unity?

Giving the Legislature more power, of course. And taking it away from Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Governors have controlled the welfare budget since lawmakers handed the responsibility over in the 1990s as part of welfare reform. Now the federal- and state-funded Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program faces a shortfall of nearly one fifth of its $2 billion budget over the next two years.

Faced with the need to make devastating cuts in these programs, you would think it would be a hot potato no one wants. But nope — everybody wants to make the cuts themselves.

“The budget is our document and we need to have control over all of it, because it’s all connected,” the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bill Hinkle, R- Cle Elum, told me today.

“It’s been kind of a sore spot over the years.”

He said the many sponsors are a signal to Gregoire that they could override a veto, at least in the House. “The message there is we have a veto proof majority supporting this.”

Gregoire wants to keep the authority, said her budget director, Marty Brown.

“There are going to be so many changes that have to occur,” he said. The state needs to be flexible to make changes quickly when the Legislature’s not in session, he said, as the number of people enrolled in welfare programs changes or new federal money comes available.

The bill comes on the same day Gregoire’s latest round of cuts to deal with the shortfall hit families on welfare. People who have been on welfare for more than five years over their lifetimes are being cut off unless they win a specific exemption.

Advocacy groups say more than 5,000 families raising nearly 10,000 children are being cut off from the money they use to pay for rent, groceries and clothing. Cash grants also drop today by 15 percent, to $478 per month for a single parent with two children, for example.

Some legislative Democrats think Gregoire’s attempts at cutting have been too damaging, especially to child care. Some Republicans, meanwhile, think she should have made changes like the five-year limit years ago.

The GOP might like the Legislature’s leaders’ solutions even less, though. Hinkle noted some Republicans worry the leadership might be more liberal than the governor. But it’s about asserting the Legislature’s power, he said, not bashing the governor.

“This bill isn’t really an attack on her per se,” he said.

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