Seattle's News Elixir

Saying revenue should only be considered as a last resort after "exhausting reforms and ensuring existing funds are dedicated to the highest-priority items" State Sen. Joe Zarelli (R-18, Ridgefield), the ranking Republican on the senate budget committee, released a batch of recommended reforms today to deal with the budget crisis. Many of the reforms are conceptual ("outsourcing may result in reduced costs") and so don't come with a price tag, making it hard to gauge the exact savings from his proposal.

However, some of the programs that Zarelli wants to scale back or "closely examine" do come with price tags.

For example, he wants to consider eliminating the $200 million the state spends each biennium for "non-citizen social service funding" and lower the $400 million it spends per biennium for in-home care. "Is it the proper role of government," Zarelli asks, "to pay someone – as a 'job' replete with vacation, mileage and possibly a retirement benefit–to care for a family member?" He says  two-thirds of in-home care workers care solely for a family member, yet have benefited from union negotiations.

Service Employees International Union spokesman Adam Glickman says the percentage of in-home workers caring for family members is more like 50 percent (not two-thirds), or about 20,000 in-home care workers caring for family members. And says that by lowering their already meager compensation—currently about $10 an hour—you'd force them out of jobs and force thousands of seniors and people with disabilities into state nursing homes, upping state expenses. Additionally, I'd point out, Zarelli's premise that people should simply stay home to care for sick or elderly relatives assumes they don't need to earn a living.

To be fair, Zarelli's in-home care cut does come with his own footnote. He says: "These family members do provide a benefit to the state, for the care they provide is less costly than if the recipients were moved from their homes into facilities. As a society we should acknowledge that benefit and support these families in a positive way..." Though not acknowledge it with money, I suppose?

Regardless, the Republican mantra this session has been "Reform before revenue" and  Zarelli is now offering ideas to fill out the rhetoric. He writes:
Reforms can yield short-or long-term benefits. They can generate savings or better outcomes. They can mean getting the state entirely out of an activity or altering how things are done. The unifying characteristic is these are changes that should be pursued even absent a fiscal crisis because they are the right thing to do.   And, yes, reforms can and should look at both expenditures and tax policy  ...underlying all of these decisions should be the notion of sustainability: permanent changes are preferable to temporary fixes.

In addition to paying in-home workers a stipend instead of covering all their union-negotiated costs and potentially cutting non-citizens off social services, here are some other specific suggestions—with a central focus on K-12 reforms—from Sen. Zarelli.
• Enact a series of K-12 reforms that base teacher pay on evaluations rather than seniority. (Zarelli, in fact, pushed an unsuccessful bill along these lines earlier this year with Democratic Sen. Rodney Tom, D-48, Bellevue)

• Increase the state property tax, to the tune of $900 million, to stabilize and increase support for poorer school districts, easing the burden on the levy equalization fund, which he argues is regressive on poorer districts.  (Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter, the house ways and means chair is floating a similar idea, according to the Seattle Times, though his Republican house colleagues seem skeptical.)

• Give the state the power to intervene in failing schools ... "A student’s ZIP code should not dictate his or her academic and career opportunities."

• Make teachers sign on to the state health care plan instead of the more comprehensive union plan

Zarelli also has recommendations about tax reform, collective bargaining, human services:
•Institute a B&O tax exemption for startups and small businesses

•Force state workers unions to come to the bargaining table during economic emergencies

• Pass a constitutional amendment to lower allowable debt service on bonds as a percentage of the general fund

• Increase co-pays and premiums for recipients of state health care

Zarelli's Democratic counterpart, Senate Ways and Means Chair Sen. Ed Murray (D-43) didn't have a comment on Zarelli's proposals. We have a call in to Senate Majority Leader Sen. Lisa Brown (D-3, Spokane).
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