For the second time in four years, Washington voters are being asked to set tougher standards for the people who care for some of the state’s most vulnerable residents.
But unlike 2008, when the state was coming off a string of years in which revenue regularly outpaced planned expenses, voters in 2011 are being asked to make the state take on new programs when it is cutting existing ones.
Initiative 1163 sets training standards and requires background checks for long-term care workers, who assist the elderly and disabled in their own homes, assisted-living facilities or adult family homes.
Those changes come with a cost to the state, but the ballot measure’s supporters and opponents disagree strongly on the amount of that cost.
I-1029, an initiative with similar goals but some differences in details, was approved by nearly 3-to-1 by voters in 2008 but was suspended the next year and again this year by the Legislature as revenues slipped in the recession.
“Voters said overwhelmingly this is a priority,” Sandeep Kaushik, a spokesman for Yes on I-1163, said of the prior measure. Problems with lax oversight and inadequate training haven’t gone away, he said. One of the requirements of I-1163 would more than double the number of hours of training for long-term care workers, from 34 to 75 hours.
Cindi Laws, executive director of the Washington State Residential Care Council and the chief spokeswoman against the measure, said voters in 2011 may be much different, and less willing to commit the state to expensive new programs. In 2008, a surge of young, progressive voters went to the polls for the presidential race and the recession was just beginning, she said.
“The public hadn’t quite grasped how deep the economic problems were. Now they’ve seen four successive legislative sessions of shortfalls and seen how deep the cuts have gone,” Laws said.
Kaushik and Laws disagree on what the costs of I-1163 would be. Kaushik cited a fiscal analysis by the state’s Office of Financial Management that estimates the net cost to the state of the changes to training and background checks would be $18 million through June 2013. OFM analysts said the costs of new programs would be about $31 million total, but the state could recoup about $14 million through federal money.
Laws said the cost will be closer to $80 million. First, she said, the federal money isn’t a sure thing, because Congress is in the midst of major budget cuts itself. And even if federal money is available, that still comes from taxpayers, so it shouldn’t be discounted. She also contended that passing I-1163 will unsuspend I-1029, adding another $50 million in costs projected by OFM for the previous measure.
Kaushik said that’s essentially double-counting the costs of the same training required by the two measures.
OFM refused Laws’ request to revise its fiscal analysis and stands by its cost figures. A comparison of the two measures shows they aren’t carbon copies, and passing I-1163 will hasten training requirements for some workers and delay them for others.
Whatever the actual costs, they will hit the state at a time when Gov. Chris Gregoire and the Legislature are slashing the budget. Gregoire on Thursday proposed some $381 million in cuts to social services programs. For any program that is added, an existing program would have to be trimmed or eliminated.
Kaushik argued that the state can’t afford not to have better-trained long-term care workers as it looks for ways to keep people out of more expensive nursing home care for as long as possible. “There’s a significant liability cost for the state of not doing anything.”
Laws countered that the initiative is really just a recruiting tool for the Service Employees International Union, which represents some care workers, sponsored the measure, is its main donor and will be offering some of the training.