Yesterday afternoon, the Seattle city council passed its 2016 amended budget package, but not without one last dramatic (and at times bitter) showdown between council member Kshama Sawant and her traditional adversaries on the council.
Sawant tried to push through an amendment that would have set aside $1.5 million to expand the Seattle’s current paid parental leave policy of four weeks to 12 weeks.
Back in April, following a push from outgoing council member Jean Godden and Mayor Ed Murray, the city council passed an ordinance giving city employees four weeks of paid parental leave regardless of gender. As a follow-up, Sawant’s proposal would set aside a one-time allocation of $1.5 million to be used next year to expand the policy to twelve weeks.
Sawant reintroduced her green sheet (which had failed by a 4-4 split vote in the budget committee last week), only to be undercut council president Tim Burgess, who brought forward his own counter proposal to allocate $78,000 to the City’s Human Resources Department to create a work plan on how to expand paid parental leave alongside other worker benefits.
Burgess’s counter proposal, which was redolent of his politicking last September when he outflanked and watered down Sawant's rent control resolution, passed council unanimously. Sawant’s failed 5-4, with council member Sally Bagshaw withdrawing her original support. (Bagshaw had voted for Sawant’s green sheet last week with regular Sawant allies Mike O'Brien and Nick Licata, but went with Burgess's version yesterday.) Council member Bruce Harrell, who was noticeably absent during last Monday’s budget vote, joined Sawant and her allies—council members Mike O’Brien and Nick Licata—in voting yes.
Following testimony in favor of 12 weeks paid parental leave during public comment from representatives from local union Teamsters 117, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington, and progressive advocacy organization Washington CAN, Burgess laid out his counter-proposal. It calls on the city’s HR department to compile a “Workforce Equity Strategic Plan” by July 1st, 2016, which will include recommendations and an implementation budget and timeline. Burgess's alternative calls for exploring potential strategies for cultivating “greater workforce equity,” such as elder relative care leave, on-site childcare or childcare subsidies, alternative work arrangements like telecommuting, targeted recruitment and other efforts to increase diversity in the city’s workforce.
The obvious, big difference in Burgess’s legislation is the lack of an immediate funding allocation for expanded paid leave.
Burgess and Bagshaw both stressed their belief in the value of 12 weeks paid leave, with the caveat that proper process for establishing said policy is also important. “In city government process is sometimes as important as policy,” said Burgess in his pitch. “It [his legislation] includes consideration of expanding paid parental leave, but also includes a more comprehensive scope.”
Bagshaw went to bat for the counter proposal next, saying “governing thoughtfully really does require collaboration and planning,” and that she would like to find a sustainable funding source for 12 weeks paid leave, in addition to exploring ways to backfill for employees utilizing their leave, concluding that she would not be supporting Sawant’s green sheet, eliciting boos from the audience.
Sawant jumped in, saying she would support Burgess’s amendment but stressed that the two green sheets weren't “mutually exclusive.”
“I see these two things as being complementary," she said. "At the end of the day, it’s getting dollars assigned to paid leave that will help them [parents]. The most collaborative approach that we can have, the most thoughtful governance that we can have, is to listen to the workers of Seattle to have a change in the status quo, in inequality, and inadequate benefits in the workplace.” (She went on to cite a letter from the Seattle Women’s Commission supporting her amendment.)
Outgoing council member Tom Rasmussen (who openly loathes Sawant) took a jab at Sawant’s green sheet, saying Burgess’s proposal was “far more well thought out and inclusive from a workforce equity standpoint.” And outgoing council member Godden argued that Sawant's one-time allocation was not sustainable. (It's worth noting that the funding for the original four weeks ordinance isn't everlasting. Back in April, The Stranger reported that council budgeted $500,000 to go toward paid parental leave back in 2014, and the Mayor's most recent budget is making up the difference for this year and next.)
Sawant ally Licata argued that the deadline for filing the strategic plan should be sped up to February 1st of next year, arguing that HR doesn’t need until Burgess's July 1 checkpoint to develop the strategic plan, given that four weeks paid leave has been in effect since May 2015 and data should be already available to adequately inform policy makers on how the policy has been implemented. Ultimately, Licata’s amendment to Burgess’s green sheet was voted down.
In a last minute pitch, Sawant defended her $1.5 million proposal. “We are not creating a new benefit, we’re expanding an existing one,” she said. “This green sheet does not set policy, it sets aside money for a future ordinance in 2016.”
Council member O’Brien echoed that point. “If we decide at any point that it is not appropriate, then we can [redirect it]. I think this action of setting the money aside will preserve flexibility for when the new council comes in,” he said, noting that the next council will be majority women.
“Their arguments are that they [her colleagues] agree with us, they have our values, but they want to do it right,” Sawant told the audience. “I don’t think that’s doing it right, putting off something that has proven to be effective.”
Harrell chimed in, briefly attempting to address his absence last week without providing any real explanation. “I never missed one Monday this whole year, and then everyone is saying ‘what are you going to do,’” he said in reference to last week’s speculation over where his vote would land. “I’m very supportive of this [Sawant’s amendment],” he clarified.
The eventual 5-4 vote put the final, fatal stab in Sawant’s 12 weeks paid parental leave funding allocation, with Bagshaw’s reversal tipping the vote against the amendment.
Before the vote on the entire 2016 budget package, council members gave spiels about the budget process, commending each other for their work and highlighting cherished line items. Sawant, like last year, denounced the budget as a “business as usual budget,” saying that she would not vote for it. “The budget differs little from previous years, and fails to address the acute housing crisis, inadequate transit, and ballooning inequality and injustice permeating Seattle,” she said.
(During this month's budget process, Sawant had tried to put an extra $10 million in the budget to fight homelessness after the mayor added $6.4 million to the city's $40 million line item; Murray added $5 million in emergency funding and $1.4 in his budget proposal. Nick Licata had tried to add $2.3 million on top of that from the city's "rainy day fund"—the reserve for economic downturns—but Murray rejected that idea, saying it would set a bad precedent. However, he simultaneously pointed Licata to another surplus fund. Licata used that and added the extra $2.3 million.)
Rasmussen got in a tail end dig at Sawant, comparing her to Republicans who would rather shut down government than support a less-than-ideal budget. (Previously he had indignantly pushed back on a call from Sawant to “put politics aside” in the paid leave vote, saying “your campaign team and your campaign volunteers are here waving signs. Is that not politics?”)
The final budget passed 8-1 with council members highlighting different line items: budget chair Licata gave a shout out to a $700,000 earmark for local youth to spend as they see fit through a special "youth participatory budgeting program" where students will work with city departments to identify and pass a budget item; Burgess flagged spending on gun safety; Bagshaw applauded spending on homelessness, particularly on "rapid re-housing" or urgent rent assistance; Harrell, coming off a tight election in Southeast Seattle, cheered $1.9 million for a Southeast Seattle "economic opportunity center"; O'Brien noted Orca cards for low-income students; and Sawant, the lone no vote, offered her critique—noted above—that council passed a "business as usual" budget.