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Could the Pie be Bigger? Lawmakers Struggle to Prioritize Essential Needs this 2023 Legislative Session. 

written by Jude Ahmed, ULMS Advocacy Program Manager

Washington’s State Legislature passed the chaotic first half of the legislative session on March 7th. But lawmakers are having a hard time passing much else. With lawmakers on both sides pessimistically eyeing an apparently positive economic outlook and Federal COVID-19 relief funds drying up, the appetite to continue, create, and expand state funding for innovative essential needs programs is waning.  

Emergency pandemic services are signaling to those that rely on them that their services are coming to a close. Yet, ULMS staff can attest each and every day that Washington families need our help – now more than ever. The flow of neighbors coming to our housing and health insurance navigators to request their basic needs has not stemmed. The challenges of finding safe work in our state is not over. The conditions which pushed Washingtonians deeper into poverty have not changed. Prices and services are high, and a weak and difficult to navigate safety net. Black people slip through the system; creating a disproportionate reliance on for-profit and non-profit programs funded by piecemeal government grants. 

Despite Democrats beating the odds of a “red wave” and strengthening their mandate in our state legislature, there is a hesitancy- and sometimes outright refusal- to use that power to address the public health, housing, and economic crises in Washington State.  

This is evident in the slew of bills on the chopping block after the budget committee hearings in both the House and the Senate. Maintaining hardship-time limit extensions to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and expanding access to the Working Families Tax Credit are facing immense pushback from the legislature, with these potential lifelines trimmed down to fit the state’s suddenly limited budget. An ambitious bill titled “Free School Meals for All” was drastically whittled down into free school meals for some. And the effort to end the practice of wasting state dollars to attempt to collect debt from juveniles involved in the court system was deemed too expensive. Lawmakers barely wanted to touch a pilot for guaranteed basic income or even look at a baby bonds policy – which would be one of the most effective tools to reduce generational poverty. Don’t even get us started on housing – homeless service providers and programs are also facing risks of cuts.  

With each and every bill we are hearing the same thing from lawmakers: the pie isn’t big enough. Every bill, from criminal-legal reform, healthcare access, affordable housing, and low-income assistance, is pitted against one another for limited funding. The result is a concerningly piecemeal strategy to address our community’s most pressing needs. 

We cannot act like the pandemic is over and thus the economic and social consequences are gone too. Cutting essential services and opportunities to self-sufficiency too early, before our community has the chance to find real stability, is disastrous. Food banks are more strapped than they have been since the start of the pandemic. Families on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families were eligible to extend their receipt of assistance during the pandemic but are now at risk of losing that extension as soon as June. 

So, we ask – could the pie be bigger? Why is it that bills to tax extreme wealth are not even given a public forum for debate? What are lawmakers doing to address the extreme inequality in our state? Why is it that legislation that should be cost-cutting, such as ending long-term unverified solitary confinement in the department of corrections, given an immense price tag? That’s politics for you. If we don’t actively push our way into these conversations, they will be had without us. 

Washington’s Black community has been promised a return to “normalcy” as attention shifts away from the pandemic and towards a currently troubled economy. Where systemic racial disparities in health exist, we reject the notion that our risks from COVID-19 pandemic are over. We reject that normalcy was ever to our benefit. We fight to be better than before. We must focus on access to affordable housing, reduced health disparities, economic relief, criminal justice reform and other basic needs because that leads to the safety and stability of our community. As Brandon Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative observes, the opposite of poverty is not wealth, the opposite of poverty is justice. 

The 2023 legislative session continues through the month of April, and there is plenty of time to make your voice heard to your elected officials and hold them accountable to the promises of the campaign season.  

ULMS is collaborating with the Tacoma Urban League (TUL) to take action in key legislation that would benefit the Black community in the Puget Sound region. In addition to advocating on their behalf, we hope to empower our community to talk to lawmakers about issues that matter to them. 

Our 2023 Legislative Framework intends to ground the policies our staff and partners identified as necessary towards systemic change into five core beliefs. Whatever resonates with you and your community, now is the time to contact your lawmakers. We make it easy with this action email that will identify the lawmakers in your district and directly email them. 

1.) Designing Our Democracy to Work For Us 

Those who were able to participate in the election and who we elected determine what bills will be up for debate and which bills pass or fail. It all goes back to whether we are empowered to elect decision makers who work for us.  

2.) Safety Looks like Having Your Needs Met 

Everyone is talking about safety. Inflation and the economic ramifications of the pandemic have disproportionally destabilized our most vulnerable community members and anyone without the safety net of generational wealth. People are associating poverty with more crime, inciting a reversion to police and punitive justice to address safety. 

3.) How We Address Harm Can Transform our Community 

Police and the criminal legal system continue to favor harsh punishment over creating opportunities for reentry, stability, and community-based restorative justice. Abolition, a reality where we do not rely on police and jails to address harm, is a practice, and there are steps we can take to better address harm in our community within the realities of our current system that work towards this ultimate vision. 

4.) Our Environment is Our Health 

Where we are and our environment is a key deciding factor of our social determinants of health – the context of our lives in which we live, learn, work, and play. Thus, disparities in our environment often mirror those in our health. With the pandemic, protecting our health became a top priority. At the same time, we began to closely examine how environmental justice is an intersectional issue, where social hierarchies—racism, capitalism, other –isms- drastically impact our health outcomes. 

5.) Follow the Lead of Our Youth 

Youth voice is essential to the future leadership of our communities. Yet they are often excluded from decision making and policy conversations. We commit to following the lead of youth advocates in this legislative session and growing our network’s support for the initiatives they put forward. 

You can view our legislative framework at and check out our top policy priorities the status of the bills we are supporting; we will be continuously updating this as the session goes on. You can check today to see what bills made it through the first half of the legislative session. 

You can also sign up for our weekly legislative update emails. We also use these emails as a forum to educate you about the nuts and bolts of the legislative system, the process a bill takes to become a law, and the many ways you can get involved with your lawmakers. Sign up for our ACE Advocates Network TODAY at