Today’s full council meeting is the final chapter in the writing of the City of Seattle’s 2016 budget.
The meeting started with 40 minutes of public comment, mostly on budget related items and the majority of those pleading with the Council to enact 12 weeks of parental leave.
There is a wide misunderstanding of the actual agenda item up for consideration today: Council member Sawant has re-submitted an amendment to the 2016 budget which would set aside $1.5 million in 2016 into a reserve fund which would help pay for a new policy of 12 weeks of paid parental leave for city workers — in the case that the Council enacts such a policy next year. She has talked this up with her supporters as if the amendment would actually enact 12 weeks of paid parental leave, but it doesn’t. (read it yourself above)
The Council made quick work of the long list of individual items that accompany the 2016 budget, ordinances that regulate the way that budgeted funds get spent or how taxes and fees are implemented.
When it came to passing the budget itself, Council President Burgess proposed an amendment to add $75,000 to the Department of Human Resources with the proviso that $150,000 must be spend to complete the Workforce Equity Plan by July 1, 2016 — which includes implementing a 12 week parental leave policy as well as a number of other workforce equity issues. In his comments Burgess emphasized that process is important, including taking the time to work with the representatives of the unions city workers belong to so that collective bargaining processes can be followed. Both Burgess and Council member Bagshaw emphasized that 12 weeks of parental leave is a very important issue that the city needs to address, but they want to talk about a wider set of issues including part time and job sharing opportunities, breastfeeding rooms, how the city backfills behind employees out on 12 weeks of leave, and other accommodations. Bagshaw referred to it as a “12 plus week” strategy. Council member Sawant supported the amendment, noting that she is an economist and knows that it’s always good to get more information, but also pointed out that this is not the first study on parental leave in the city and argued that the study wouldn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know. She also said that she sees this as complementary with her own amendment since the city could go ahead and plan the funding now. She ended by saying “I believe in a collaborative approach” — a response to the criticism she receives that she has trouble working with other Council members — but then said that the most collaborative approach is to listen to the workers. Burgess responded by saying that it isn’t a study, it’s developing a plan “to implement what we all know we want.” Council member Rasmussen commented that the focus on parental leave is too narrow — he wants to see it be a broader “family leave” that would cover time off to help with elderly or disabled family members as well. Council member Licata asked about the specific timeline — whether July 1 was too long to wait. Burgess responded that they need some time to accelerate the process and to identify the funding source, and that the first year report on 4 weeks of parental leave is due in June. Council member Licata offered an amendment to change the delivery date for the part of the report related to paid parental leave on February 1st; that failed. Burgess’s original amendment passed 9-0.
Council member Sawant then moved to amend the budget with a re-submission of her prior amendment to redirect $1.5 million into a reserve to help fund 12 week parental leave. In her comments, she hand-waved the concern that her amendment is just one-time funding and doesn’t identify future sources of funding by arguing that many other budget amendments do the same thing (and that she believes that they could find one-time funding every year if necessary). She also argued against delaying until July 1. Of note, Council member Harrell privately had suggested a wording change which Sawant had incorporated into the text of her amendment (which as of this writing is not published online) — a rare case of Sawant doing some coalition-building. She ended by saying “I appeal to council members: put politics aside, put workers first.” Council member Burgess repsonded: “I agree with you: it’s not about politics, it’s about governing.” Council member O’Brien spoke in favor of it, arguing that if it was later decided not to go forward with parental leave, they could decide mid-year to follow through with the original plan to repay a loan. Council member Harrell spoke up in support of Sawant’s amendment, seeing it as an opportunity to “viciously attack unfairness.” He noted that the funding isn’t yet sustainable, but he isn’t worried about it if this is a priority (and it is). He also noted that his fellow council members who oppose it care just as much about the issue but “have a different approach.” Council member Godden argued passionately that this approach is not fiscally responsible and is probably only about a third of the needed funds for 2016; but also noted all the other workforce-friendly new initiatives, including those addressing gender equity issues. Council member Rasmussen argued that Sawant’s amendment is too narrow; he also called out Sawant for being false in her claim of putting politics aside since she has campaign workers in the audience waving placards. Sawant closed the discussion by emphasizing the sense of urgency in getting a 12-week paid parental leave benefit to city workers. In the end, the amendment failed, 4-5; Harrell, Licata, O’Brien and Sawant voted in favor. Bagshaw flipped her vote from last week — today voting against the amendment. If she had maintained her previous stance, the amendment would have passed.
Before the Council’s vote on approving the full budget, Council member Sawant gave another speech, reiterating the successes they had in a variety of progressive efforts within the budget, but making the point that for her, “as a workers’ representative” that in proportion to the whole budget, the changes made by the Council represent only 2% of the entire budget. She feels that overall the Council has failed to address the real issues of the Seattle and is just another “business as usual” budget. She pointed to the need to tax the wealthy and business to address human needs, housing and homelessness, and the traffic situation. She argued that the people need to elect a “left-wing Council” though she feels that they are nearing that day and encouraged her supporters to show up on Inauguration Day (January 4) to make their voices heard.
Council member Rasmussen pointed out that the State makes the decision about tax structure, not the city, and applauded the Council’s moves to use those funds to address human needs. He compared Sawant to the Republicans in Congress, saying that if they don’t get what they want they vote “no” on the budget and shut the government down. He listed what he sees as a long list of new initiatives that benefit the people of Seattle and address homelessness, housing, neighborhoods, and transit. Rasmussen clearly has no love for Sawant, and is taking his last few opportunities before he leaves office to make his feelings known. Council member Harrell also spoke in favor of the budget and the initiatives that help ushered through — especially ones in his district. He also commended budget committee chair Licata on his leadership through the budget process, and the Mayor on his original budget proposal. Licata noted that the council allocated “many millions of dollars” for programs that were not in the Mayor’s proposal for addressing human needs and for arts programs. Council member Bagshaw noted that not only did they allocate money for health and human services, but they are coordinating with King County now. Council president Burgess noted that next year Seattle will spend nearly $48 million on homelessness — more than any city in the US except New York and Los Angeles. He also noted the work on gun violence prevention. He also explained that while it’s easy to criticize the Council for only “nibbling around the edges” of the budget, 75-80% of the budget is city employee expenses, over which they have little flexibility. The Council approved the budget 8-1 (Sawant the sole “no” vote).
The council meeting ended by recognizing Council member Okamoto’s last council meeting and second-to-last day as a Council member; several Council members personally spoke in thanks for his service. Even Sawant had kind words — thanking him for his support of the teachers in their strike.
Not a good day for Council member Sawant and her supporters, but a good day for Seattle, which now has a 2016 budget.
UPDATE: The Council has issued a news release with a collection of their sound bites on the budget.