King County Executive Dow Constantine is seeking to renew the county’s Best Starts for Kids levy, which has doled out millions of dollars to more than 400 organizations over the last five years, in an effort to foster children’s development by supporting wide-ranging early-intervention programs.
The new proposal, which represents a 35% increase on the expiring 2015 property tax levy rate, would continue past funding priorities and add a focus on improving access to child care throughout the county.
Constantine called the existing levy, “the most extensive program of its kind in America.”
As a government, he said, “we spend most of our time trying to figure out ways to deal with, react to, bad outcomes,” things like homelessness, addiction, domestic violence and incarceration.
The levy, Constantine said, seeks to head off those bad outcomes.
“The avoidance of adverse childhood experiences on the physical development of a child’s brain,” Constantine said, “this is where we as a country, as well as a community, were falling down.”
The new funding, Constantine said, would reduce by two-thirds the number of children under 5 who have no access to child care because their parents can’t afford it. It would provide child care for about 3,000 kids per year, Constantine said through subsidies for families and for child care workers.
“There is just not enough supply of child care,” Constantine said. “It’s too expensive for the parents, it doesn’t pay well enough to retain the employees.”
Constantine’s office says that the previous levy, since 2015, served more than 500,000 youth and families, with a focus on preventing homelessness, funding health centers in schools and providing in-home services for new parents. Smaller amounts of funding have also gone to organizations involved in political advocacy and lobbying.
He credited the levy’s homelessness prevention initiatives with helping keep 9,200 families housed.
“It is so enormously expensive to get someone out of homelessness once they fall into it,” Constantine said
The new six-year levy proposal is $0.19 per $1,000 of assessed property value. That’s an increase from $0.14 approved in 2015 and would represent $114 per year for the median King County home, Constantine’s office said.
The 2015 levy represented $440 million in tax money; the 2021 levy would be $811 million, Constantine said, due to both the higher tax rate and inflation.
Constantine’s proposal, if approved by the Metropolitan King County Council, would go to voters on the August primary ballot.
The levy passed with 56% of the vote in 2015 despite what critics said was a vague description of what it would do. It has since given grants to more than 400 health clinics, nonprofits, community organizations and school districts, most of which work with children.
The levy renewal, like the original, lays out spending priorities largely by age, with 39% of funding dedicated to serving kids up to age 5, and 29% for youth between ages 5 and 24. About 23% of funding would be for child care and homelessness prevention, with the remainder for community-directed organizations and program evaluation.
Open Arms Perinatal Services has received $275,000 to provide services for low-income families, including doulas, home visits and classes in things like childhood development and lactation. They serve about 1,000 people a year, executive director Dila Perera said, and much of their funding comes from city, county and state government.
“We’re very much on the side of preventing challenges for children before they arise,” Perera said. “The levy provided much needed funding for us to expand our services so we could serve more people who live in the county and also meet our day to day costs at the same time.”
The levy has also given money to more political organizations, ones that employ lobbyists and advocate for Democratic Party priorities.
The Washington Bus Education Fund, for instance, received at least $70,000 “to engage young people in generating creative policy solutions and increasing voting rates.”
Washington Bus, its sister organization, runs a youth voter registration drive and lobbies in Olympia on a wide range of issues from immigration to climate change to criminal justice reform. The two groups also have five registered lobbyists to lobby King County government, the source of its Best Starts for Kids funding. Washington Bus’s 2020 voter guide endorsed exclusively Democrats.
All in for Washington received at least $200,000 from Best Starts for Kids to “develop comprehensive tax policy options that bring multiple perspectives to the table.” The group advocates for tax reform, specifically Democratic priorities like implementing a capital gains tax.
Puget Sound Sage, which received at least $270,000, employs lobbyists in Olympia and Seattle and advocates policies such as defunding the Seattle Police Department and raising taxes on big businesses.
Constantine said that the county’s contracts with all organizations spell out the specific things funding can be used for “and they’re not able to use our money for lobbying.”
“There are a lot of organizations that provide direct services to people or to communities and also, as part of their book of business, advocate for public policy direction or change,” he said. “As our region recovers from the health and economic crises brought on by the global pandemic, it is more important than ever to make sure every child and family is supported to share in that recovery.”