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Council sets budget without big parental leave boost

Tim Burgess at a charity breakfast Credit: Red Cross

On Monday, after several contentious back-and-forths over paid-parental leave for city workers, the City Council approved the 2016 Seattle budget in an 8-to-1 vote.  Just as last year, Councilmember Kshama Sawant was the sole no vote, decrying the budget as “business as usual” to a council chamber full of vocal Sawant followers.

Public comment primarily featured supporters of an amendment introduced by Sawant last week, which would  increase paid leave for city workers from four to 12 weeks. The paid-leave extension kicked off the final mini-battle in a long, sometimes tense budget debate. The proposal, which received support from Councilmembers Mike O’Brien, Nick Licata, and Sally Bagshaw, was to dedicate $1.5 million one-time funding to immediately expand paid leave for city workers from four to 12 weeks.

Bruce Harrell did not attend last week’s meeting and the vote landed in a stalemate. The council members who opposed Sawant’s proposal cited vagueness and an unsustainable funding source. Sawant, however, reintroduced the proposal Monday, hoping Harrell would be the deciding factor on the paid-leave amendment.

After slogging through a long list of technical budget amendments that had been worked out prior to Monday afternoon’s meeting, Burgess introduced his own amendment that only partly addressed the paid leave question, allotting $78,000 to accelerate a “workforce equity assessment.”

The assessment, initiated by the mayor’s office in the spring, would include a “consideration of expanding” paid parental leave, among many directives. Burgess’ amendment suggested that it would provide a “roadmap” to implementing a 12-week paid leave policy, separate from the study the city is already planning of its current, four-week policy. The report, with recommendations for how best to extend the city’s paid leave policy, is expected July 1.

Councilmember Licata responded to the proposal with a barrage of questions, challenging the logic behind the July deadline. Why not earlier? Licata cited Feb. 1 as a more reasonable date.

But to no avail. Licata’s counter-suggestion failed and Burgess’ original proposal was approved.

The council’s attention then turned to Sawant’s call to immediately fund 12 weeks of paid parental leave for one year. In introducing the same amendment from last week, Sawant challenged her colleagues to recognize that the policy is a “straightforward, inexpensive, [and] highly effective improvement.”

“Let’s not be the can’t-do council,” she said. “Put politics aside, put workers first!”

Burgess was unmoved. “I agree,” he said. “It is time to put politics aside. This is about governing.”

Councilmember Jean Godden said the amendment would be “financially irresponsible” and unsustainable since the funding would not necessarily exist in coming years.

After the rest of the council made statements in favor and opposition, Burgess called the vote. Harrell, as Sawant had hoped, voted for her original proposal, but Bagshaw withdrew her support, and Sawant’s immediate enactment of 12 weeks paid parental leave failed 5-4.

The crowd responded with audible groans and sighs. “Come on, Bagshaw,” someone said.

Although Sawant eventually voted against the budget, reaction from the other council members and Mayor Ed Murray was largely positive. “This budget will support our efforts to manage our growing population, make the City safer, expand economic opportunity for youth, and respond to the current crisis of homelessness,” Murray said in a statement.

But for Sawant supporters, the disappointment over the paid leave loss was heavy. Despite her request for onlookers to stay during closing remarks, the chamber began to clear out.

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