Governor Gary Locke’s Remarks
AP Forum
January 4, 2000

Good afternoon. I'm pleased to address this annual gathering of reporters and editors from around the state, and I want to thank Associated Press Bureau Chief Dale Leach and his staff for organizing and hosting this useful event. I especially want to welcome those of you in the audience who are University of Washington journalism students getting your first real taste of government reporting as interns for many of the state's newspapers. I hope you come away with a new appreciation of how government and democracy actually operate.

As I look ahead to the 2000 legislative session that starts next week, I'd like to take a few minutes to look back three years to an event that can inspire us all. I'm talking about passage of welfare reform, Washington State style. And I'd like to think that it can inspire us all as we seek common ground for equally difficult public policy issues ahead-government accountability, the impacts of Initiative 695, and especially improving public education.

Welfare reform began with a simple vision - to break the welfare cycle by putting people to work in good jobs that could sustain families. Three years later, I can stand here and tell you that the vision, combined with a lot of hard work, is becoming a reality.

It is true that Washington wasn't the first with welfare reform. But the fact is, we have surged into the forefront with innovations and results that are being recognized nationally. And my commitment to do more is demonstrated by the latest investments we have made in better child care, more job training, and even stronger incentives for people to choose work over welfare.

I'll talk about those new investments in a minute, but first lets look at the results of our WorkFirst Program so far.

The population of families on welfare has dropped to its lowest comparable percentage in 30 years. Since January 1997, the welfare caseload has fallen by almost 40 percent, from 96,000 to 58,500.

More than 80,000 former and current welfare recipients have gone to work for more than 28,000 employers.

More importantly, families are better off - better off economically, and better off in how they see their own lives. Surveys show that the average monthly income of families leaving welfare varies from about $1,300 to $1,400 a month. That's not enough, but it's far better than a welfare check for $542 a month. And eight out of ten families see themselves as well or better off then when they were on welfare.

Here and around the country, people are noticing Washington's success with welfare reform.

The Legislature's Joint Audit and Review Committee is charged with evaluating WorkFirst. A recent study they did found that, when compared to the old welfare program, WorkFirst:

Increased employment by 56 percent,
Increased average quarterly earnings by 48 percent,
Decreased the likelihood of people returning to welfare by 21 percent.

And last month, WorkFirst won a national competition resulting in a $10.6 million performance bonus for the state of Washington. Washington's WorkFirst program placed first in the nation in improving job placements and improving the success of people entering the workplace.

Next month, we will join with six other states selected by the National Governors' Association to map the next steps in welfare reform.

For now, though, we're already moving ahead to make our WorkFirst program even better, all with the intent of getting people off welfare, keeping them off welfare and helping them to become economically self-sufficient.

Our current two-year budget puts more than $200 million of state welfare savings into public education in our state. But there's another $60 million in federal savings to help our low-income families lift themselves into good jobs.

We are using half of the investment, $30 million, so more parents can get help in paying for child care all with the goal of more take-home pay to meet their own household expenses.

Among other things, the other $30 million will create more work-study jobs at community colleges and prepare WorkFirst participants for jobs in high-demand industries. There is also money to make more childcare available on weekends and in the evenings given the non-traditional jobs welfare recipients are being hired for, and for improvements in child care centers.

As I mentioned, we approached welfare reform with a simple vision, and after a lot of hard work, we're making that vision reality.

I believe our success can inspire us as we deal with other, equally compelling work ahead. We must deal with the impacts of Initiative 695. But that can't be all we do. And I believe the heart of our work is - indeed must be-making our public school system the best in the nation.

We have the resources to do it, and I can promise you that I will do everything in my power as Governor to make it happen.

Our state must make a firm commitment to reduce the size of our elementary school classes. Getting there will not be easy.

I know that there are people who don't believe that smaller classes matter; that a teacher's ability to give more individual attention to students doesn't make a difference in student achievement. I know there are some who aren't concerned that Washington is the third worst in the nation in the ratio of students to teachers.

But I'm not one of those people. I know both through research and through simple common sense that smaller classes translate to more individual attention and that translates into more educated students. And I also know that parents of school children in our state are not happy that we rank 48th among the states in student teacher ratios.

So I'm making it my top priority to do something about it. I have proposed funding 1,000 new teachers for the next school year as a down payment on a longer-term plan to reduce each elementary school classes sizes by at least five students.

We face real challenges this year, including helping local governments and transit districts cope with the impacts of Initiative 695, and providing more tax relief. But for me, as we start a new century, we must fulfill our constitutional obligation to keep education our number one priority.

I'm proposing a Learning Improvement Property Tax Credit to local school districts. This will let our districts keep more than $1 billion in additional property taxes paid in their communities over the next six years. They can use the money to reduce class size or to pay for other programs to give students the individual attention they need to meet our state's tough learning standards-longer school days, longer school years, and summer institutions.

And I propose that we start using some of our revenue surpluses for a purpose intended by citizens who passed Initiative 601. The reserves that have come out of the spending limit were designed, in part, to fund education by specifying that when reserve funds reached a certain point, any excess would go to education.

Unfortunately, the reserves never have been allowed to reach the point where education benefits from Initiative 601. More than $1 billion in tax cuts have consumed the reserves before any money could get there. I'm proposing that we fix that without changing a single word in the requirement to hold down spending mandated by 601. I'm proposing that we share excess revenue fifty-fifty between schools and taxpayers.

I supported many of those tax cuts, and I'm not sorry I did. Furthermore, as you know, I'm proposing more cuts -- this time in the form of property tax relief to average citizens who are suffering because of fixed incomes, disability, or sudden jumps in the value of their property. I'm also proposing a tax rebate or dividend to every citizen that will come out of the excess revenue of future years.

But the heart of my vision must be focused, as it has been all along, on improving our education system. I know you've all heard me say that education is the great equalizer. It is something I deeply believe. We have had success with welfare reform, and we'll continue to do even better. But the larger, even more vital challenge is to make our system of public education the best in the country.

How can we expect our children to prepare themselves to be part of our rapidly changing economy if we don't educate them? How can we expect them to contribute to-rather than take from-society if we don't teach them what they need to know to thrive in an increasingly technical, complicated world? Our children can be our burden or our blessing. It's up to us.

A good education system is real welfare reform. It's also the best way to assure a happy, healthy society as Washington enters the 21st Century.

Thank you very much.
Access Washington