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Gregoire, lawmakers headed toward balancing welfare budget

Post by Jordan Schrader / The News Tribune on April 29, 2011 at 1:15 pm with No Comments »
April 29, 2011 1:15 pm

It looks like Washington’s governor will continue to take the lead in managing the way money is spent on welfare, although lawmakers may be taking a greater role in the process.

Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature’s budget writers met Thursday and are close to agreement on how to balance the remaining shortfall in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, the federal-state welfare program.

It’s largely removed from the discussion of the shortfall in the general-fund budget, but the state has been tackling a separate shortfall in the programs connected to welfare. They were due to spend roughly $2 billion in the next two-year period, which had to be cut down by about one-fifth.

Gregoire did that mostly by placing a five-year lifetime limit on welfare payouts and cutting cash payments — to $478 for a three-person family down from $562, for example. Many Democrats in the Legislature didn’t like her cuts, which fueled an effort to take over control of the welfare budget.

That seems to be over now. The Senate unanimously passed, and the House appears poised to accept at least in part, a bill by Sen. Debbie Regala of Tacoma that would make some reforms right away and appoint a legislative-executive task force to study others.

The deal doesn’t overturn the governor’s cuts, nor does it take her authority away.

“This has historically been a very contentious issue between the Legislature and the governor’s office, and I feel we have really crossed a major threshold,” said Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park.

Kagi said welfare changes proposed by the Senate provide enough legislative direction to avoid the need for further turf war over who controls the budget. “I just think it’s an argument everybody’s tired of having,” she said.

Not all details are worked out, but lawmakers said they and Gregoire agreed in principle on how to bridge the remaining shortfall of $50 million or so. It involves scaling back requirements for job searches and training for some families on welfare with very young children. That way, the state wouldn’t have to pay for their day care while they’re away from home fulfilling those requirements.

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