February 26, 1997 in City

‘Workfirst’: Locke Enters Welfare Reform Fray

Associated Press
 

As the House and Senate prepare to vote on bills that would redesign Washington’s welfare system, Gov. Gary Locke jumped into the debate Tuesday with a proposal of his own, dubbed “WorkFirst.”

Although Locke tried hard to show his plan is better than the measures being fine-tuned by the Legislature’s Republican leadership, a key GOP lawmaker said the proposals are nearly identical in terms of policy.

All three plans impose time limits for public assistance, require welfare recipients to look for work or enroll in a job-training program, boost child-care and health-care subsidies and get tough with parents who don’t pay child support.

However, the policy decisions won’t matter if there’s not enough money in the state budget to fund them. Locke is expected to release his proposed $19 billion budget blueprint next week, but lawmakers won’t reach a consensus on a final spending plan until April at the earliest.

They face major decisions regarding how much to spend on areas such as the subsidy programs and legal immigrants, who are on the verge of losing their food stamps and other forms of assistance under a federal law that took effect last summer.

And all three plans rely on projected welfare caseload reductions to help pay for expanded subsidy programs, a concept that advocates for low-income families criticize as too risky.

Locke billed his plan as a tougher, more economically responsible approach to a new welfare system than the House and Senate plans.

Under his proposal, which is still being drafted as a bill, able-bodied welfare recipients who don’t look for work or enroll in job training would be penalized by gradually reducing their payments, chopping off $50 a month for the first violation and $100 a month for the second.

Welfare recipients would be required to spend an average of four weeks looking for a job, although the time limit could range from two to eight weeks, depending on the job market. And they would be required to accept the first available job, even if it only pays the minimum wage.

In other developments:

Charter schools

A few months after Washington voters thumped a charter-school initiative, advocates from both parties on Tuesday opened a campaign to push a new-and-improved version through the Legislature.

House and Senate education committees were packed with supporters of the publicly funded independent schools as they heard testimony on separate House and Senate measures.

If either proposal becomes law, Washington would become the 26th state to authorize “charter” schools, so named for the five-year charter or contract that organizers would sign in exchange for waiver of most state and local regulations.

Backers, including leaders of the national charter-school movement, said the new system would unleash creativity and cause regular public schools to improve. Accountability is built into the system because charter schools that don’t perform wouldn’t get any business and would lose their license, advocates said.

But most of the education establishment either expressed outright opposition or requested major changes.

A less-sweeping House bill drew a more favorable review from state school chief Terry Bergeson and the Washington Education Association. Both spoke against a broader Senate bill earlier in the day.

The bipartisan House plan, drawn up by Reps. Dave Quall, D-Mount Vernon, and Gigi Talcott, R-Lakewood, has the backing of nearly all of the Education Committee and more than 70 co-sponsors in the 98-member House.

xxxx On the Internet: http://www.wa.gov for the state of Washington’s home page. http://www.leg.wa.gov for the state-run Legislative Service Center.

© Copyright 1997 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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