By Andy Engelson
Two bills that would have a significant impact on poor and vulnerable people moved forward in the legislature this week.
The first —a bill sponsored by Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-34, Seattle) that would end the requirement that people who receive the state’s Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash assistance program pay back these benefits once they qualify for federal disability aid—passed out of the senate’s human services committee last week. ABD recipients are generally some of the lowest-income people in the state: 57 percent struggle with mental illness and 33 percent are homeless. The reform bill is scheduled for a hearing in the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Thursday, the final hurdle before a floor vote.
In testimony before the human services committee, Michele Thomas of the Washington Low Income Housing Alliance said ending the pay-back requirement is long overdue.
“It changes an unfair, decades-long practice of forcing people to forgo their SSI payments that [impoverished people] desperately need,” Thomas said. “Please understand that at the same time folks are required to make these back payments, they also lose their eligibility for the Housing & Essential Needs [HEN] rental assistance program, which is already furthering their instability.” HEN is a federal program that provides emergency rent and utility assistance and access to basic household supplies to people with disabilities.
A bill that would have better aligned HEN and ABD benefits and guaranteed at least 12 months of HEN support to recipients failed to pass out of a senate committee earlier this session.
The second bill that’s moving forward is Sen June Robinson’s (D-38, Everett) bill revising the state’s drug possession policy in response to the 2021 Blake state Supreme Court ruling that found the previous law unconstitutional. The bill, which makes possessing small amounts of drugs, such as fentanyl and meth, a gross misdemeanor and requires prosecutors to divert people into coercive treatment, received a hearing in the House Community Safety, Justice, and Reentry committee on Monday.
In testimony to the committee, Sen. Robinson gave her bill mixed reviews. Centrist Senate Democrats modified the bill substantially with amendments, including a provision that forces those who drop out of court-mandated treatment to serve jail time. “My goal is to find a balance, and that is very hard to do,” Robinson told the committee. “A balance between compassion and lots of options for treatment, and—some people call them off-ramps. But, options for diversion, treatment, and services for folks who are found to be in possession of illegal substances. And also to give our communities the tools that they are asking for in these situations.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s perfect or exactly the right balance, but you will grapple with that,” Robinson told her colleagues in the House.