by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times –
After 105 days of its regular session and a combined 45 days across two special sessions, the Washington State Legislature came to a near-unanimous agreement about the state budget. The final tally in the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives was 81 in favor, 11 against. The Senate, dominated by the Republican-led Majority Coalition Caucus, accepted the budget at a ratio of 44 to 4. The budget spent a few days on Governor Jay Inslee’s desk, acquiring a series of vetoes before finally being passed into law.
Governor Inslee signed the budget just hours before a mandatory government shutdown would have gone into effect at midnight on June 30. The governor’s chief of staff, Mary Alice Heuschel, called the prospective shutdown “a state of emergency” as tens of thousands of government workers received temporary furlough notices preparing them for reduced hours or eliminated positions if an approved budget didn’t materialize.
“I, personally, am sincerely sorry for that, for causing that anxiety and that stress,” said State Senator Kevin Ranker of Orcas Island.
The final, approved budget allots $33.6 billion over the next two years. One of the biggest additions to government spending is in the realm of education. With the Washington State Supreme Court ruling in favor of the plaintiff in the 2012 case of McCleary vs. The State of Washington, there was ample judicial pressure to put more money into schools in keeping with priorities set out in the Washington State Constitution.
The long-debated budget puts $1 billion into basic education services. That money will allow the state to hire 6,000 additional teachers, create 1,700 new slots in early education programs, hire 20 new child protective care workers, maintain and expand school bus service, and provide new materials to schools.
In addition to K-12 education funding, the budget also allots support for higher education. In an era of frequent tuition hikes, the new college money will allow institutions such as the University of Washington and Seattle Central Community College to freeze tuition rates for the next year.
This massive increase in education funding doesn’t mean the state somehow came into fresh money in excess of $1 billion. To compensate for the focus on education, the state is reducing funding for public works projects and has altered health care expenditures to reflect savings associated with the Affordable Care Act.
Republicans in the legislature are happy about the end of approximately $600 million in temporary tax increases that affected businesses around the state. Many such revenue cuts balance on the availability of federal subsidies that amount to as much as $500 million to cover everything from housing to transportation projects.
Governor Inslee’s vetoes in the budget, which amount to 17 rejected sections, mostly highlight bureaucratic inefficiencies and monetary impossibilities in several oversight mandates. Many of the vetoes relieve the state auditor and legislative audit committees of the responsibility of reviewing processes in certain government departments that already have internal reviews in place. This includes a redundant study into renewable energy programs and a similarly unnecessary monitoring proviso for the Office of Financial Management. Inslee does, however, veto a cut in funding directly to the State Auditor’s Office, which is funded not by the capital budget but by a separate account created by Washington State Initiative 900 back in 2005.
Developers in construction-heavy Seattle will be pleased to know that Governor Inslee vetoed a section that would have prohibited the State Building Code Council from working on aspirational codes. These are voluntary building code measures that promote such things as sustainable construction and energy practices. Inslee’s opinion of the section states,
“Energy efficiency is the cheapest, quickest, and cleanest way to meet rising energy needs, confront climate change, and boost our economy. Therefore, I believe the Building Code Council should continue this work for the benefit of our state’s taxpayers.”
Inslee also stood up to provisos that would have altered the way the state interacts with the brand-name drug industry. He vetoed two parts of Section 213. One veto concerns a section that would spend government funds to determine if a name-brand drug would cost less in the long run compared to an equivalent generic drug. The other veto stops the budget from prohibiting the Health Care Authority from including certain classes of drugs in the Medicaid Preferred Drugs list.
The other major development at the end of the second special session of the state legislature was the failure to pass a comprehensive transportation package. Senate Republicans rejected the package in protest of a 10-cent increase in gas taxes, which would bring the state gas tax to 48 cents per gallon, double what it was a decade ago. Because of this, the government currently has no plan to address transportation projects like the Skagit River Bridge and the Columbia River Crossing.