Salting away money in a tax-protected college savings account is a proven way that parents can set up their children to reach for their dreams. That’s why Washington has a prepaid tuition program and why lawmakers are working to create a 529 college savings plan like what 48 states have.
But what if you’re the parent of a disabled child who might never be a candidate to study at a four-year college, lead a life of complete independence or take the well-traveled route to the American dream?
Government historically has offered fewer provisions for moms and dads to invest hopefully in the future of a child with Down Syndrome or other disabilities. Call it a holdover from the dark era in which most developmentally disabled people, including those with mild conditions, were warehoused at institutions such as the Rainier School in Buckley – a time when planning for your child meant making him a ward of the state.
But the 2016 Legislature, in one of its more shining moments, has approved tax-free accounts for these families. The Achieve a Better Life Experience program, known as ABLE, will let families save $100,000 or more for housing, transportation, education, therapy and other expenses. It also allows a working disabled person to deposit as much as $14,000 a year without it counting as an asset, thus shielding other government benefits.
Washington’s program mirrors the extraordinarily bipartisan ABLE Act signed by President Obama in 2014. While the federal law created the framework for these savings accounts, it left it to states to establish their own plans and rules. Washington has now pledged to open the accounts by July 2017.
What stands out about the state’s version is the dominant number of South Sound legislators who signed on as sponsors, from both chambers and both parties. Rep. Christine Kilduff, D-University Place, and Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, took the lead.
Kilduff said ABLE was brought to her attention last year by a constituent, the mother of a 27-year-old disabled woman on public assistance. The mom had heard about the federal law and was eager for Washington to implement it.
In an interview Wednesday, Kilduff noted the bill has a “peace of mind aspect” that resonates with all parents. “You look down the road and you can’t help but think, ‘How am I going to look after my child when I’m no longer on this earth?’
“This really is about providing these families not just peace of mind but also hope and self-reliance,” she added.
Congress should make a good bill even better by dumping an arbitrary age limit for the onset of a disability. Right now, ABLE offers no help for a person whose condition emerges after age 26. This unfairly excludes at least one large class of potential beneficiaries in the Puget Sound region –military service members who suffer traumatic damage.
State leaders are watching out for disabled individuals and their families in other ways, too. One bill would increase inspections and oversight of homes that care for people at highest risk of abuse or neglect. Another would require health officials to provide a myriad of information to new parents coping with a Down syndrome diagnosis. Both have been sent to the governor. South Sound legislators again did the heavy lifting on these proposals.
Together the local delegation has stepped up to provide stewardship for vulnerable Washingtonians, exemplifying an old adage from Ronald Reagan. One of the federal ABLE Act sponsors, U.S. Rep. Ander Crenshaw, paraphrased The Gipper when he said: “There’s no limit to what you can accomplish, as long as you don’t care who gets the credit.”