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Originally published Wednesday, December 12, 2012 at 8:05 PM

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Legislature: Put future benefits ahead of temporary savings

Our representatives don't have it so easy these days, faced with budget pressures that can squeeze any initiative down to a matter of dollars and cents. But it is especially in conditions like this slow recovery that every decision and each dollar spent needs to make the most sense.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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I just read a report that gives the Washington Legislature low marks.

Members of the Senate and House were judged on whether their actions in the last session made life better or worse for residents who are already wrestling with significant disadvantages.

Our representatives don't have it so easy these days, faced with budget pressures that can squeeze any initiative down to a matter of dollars and cents.

But it is especially in conditions like this slow recovery that every decision, and each dollar spent needs to make the most sense.

The report discusses what the Legislature got right and where it came up short, such as failing to pass a House bill that would have broadened access to high-quality early learning.

Good early-learning programs have proved to help children past some of the obstacles to learning that can be present in poverty, and yield savings to taxpayers in juvenile justice, health care and K-12 costs. It didn't make it through this year.

Just this week the results of two international tests showed students in the United States trailing a number of countries that don't have our resources. We can do better.

Politicians are used to being graded, of course, and they know their scores depend on who's doing the rating.

This report's goal is to encourage decisions that contribute to a better future for the residents most at risk of not thriving, and I'd add for everyone.

The report, from Washington Community Action Network is called, "Facing Race: 2012 Legislative Report Card on Racial Equity." That's a straightforward statement of purpose, but from a marketing standpoint, it's not a winner. Racial equality is not a popular topic to say the least.

The report helps readers understand how race, ethnicity or other attributes hamper the lives of some Washington residents more than others.

But for many people, the selling point might be that legislation that helps people who are affected by past and present inequality, would also help lots of other people, and ultimately make a better state for everyone.

For example, both the Senate and the House passed a bill that extends foster care for young people up to age 21 if they are enrolled in higher education.

It allows young people more time for a successful launch into adulthood. A pilot program found that young people who got extended time were less likely to be arrested. Less crime is a benefit to the community.

Washington tends to be a progressive state; our recent affirmation of marriage equality is just one indication of that.

What the report is telling legislators is to keep their eyes on our future. Making cuts today that cost us more tomorrow isn't good governance.

Washington Community Action Network describes itself as a grass-roots organization that works for racial, economic and social justice. A long list of community organizations endorsed the annual report.

Some of the supporters spoke at a news conference Monday, International Human Rights Day, at the Odessa Brown Children's Clinic in Seattle's Central Area.

Dr. Benjamin Danielson, a pediatrician and medical director of Odessa Brown, spoke of parents forgoing health care to pay for food or housing.

Danielson said tooth decay is the most common condition doctors see at the clinic, and it could be prevented if more families had access to care.

The Washington Dental Service Foundation made the same point in a separate statement this week.

Its statement noted that the Legislature had saved money two years ago by eliminating nonemergency dental benefits for nearly 450,000 adults. Those savings are more than wiped out by higher costs down the line. Taxpayers end up paying for millions of dollars in dental-related emergency-room visits, and lengthy treatments of advanced dental problems.

Each member of the Legislature will get a copy of the Washington Community Action Network report. (The report, and previous ones are online at washingtoncan.org.)

Every decision in the upcoming session will be part of a larger test. It's not about grades, but about what kind of future we're building.

Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346

or jlarge@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter: @jerrylarge.

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About Jerry Large

I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
jlarge@seattletimes.com | 206-464-3346

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