Session has Democrats smiling, GOP grumbling
OLYMPIA – On Monday, Eastern Washington lawmakers crammed their belongings into cars, vans and pickups, eagerly heading home after this year’s busy 15-week session.
The clamor of lobbyists and legislators in the Capitol is gone, replaced by echoes and the footsteps of visiting schoolchildren.
In general, it was a good year for Democrats and their allies in the labor, education, environmental and social service communities. Democrats passed a sweeping – and expensive – package of mental health reforms, invested in schools and colleges, approved several tax increases and pushed toward their ambitious goal of ensuring that all children have health insurance by 2010.
Many Eastern Washington Republicans said the region’s problems – land-use rules, struggling small businesses, county governments trying to stay afloat – were largely ignored.
The state budget “looks good on paper,” said Rep. Lynn Schindler, R-Otis Orchards. “But who’s going to pay for it? People voted me in here to watch very closely how much money they keep in their pocketbook.”
House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said he plans to hold meetings to hash out an agricultural and rural agenda for the next session. “I look for every opportunity I can to unify this state,” he said.
Chopp said he’s not worried about Republican predictions that a gasoline-tax increase and rises in other taxes will hurt Democrats in the next election.
“People want to go with the winning team, the team that gets things done,” he said. “And we got things done.”
So what kind of year was it in the capital city? Who won. Who lost?
Here’s a scorecard:
“ Democrats: They run the House, Senate and governor’s office, and it showed this year. If you’re worried about your jobs, schools or health care, “Your future just got better,” said a jubilant Gov. Christine Gregoire. With elections 18 months away, many Republicans are hoping the gas tax, vehicle weight fees and other taxes are as politically hazardous as they claimed.
“ Hospitals: State Medicaid reimbursements will rise 1.3 percent annually for the next two years. That’s $37 million more, millions of which will go to Spokane hospitals.
“ Military communities: The budget includes $5 million to help pay for local projects – like roads – to discourage the closure of Washington military bases.
“ Overcrowded prisons: The state will build a new 1,280-bed medium-security prison in Franklin County. Cost: $179 million.
“ Organized labor: Seasonal workers will get higher unemployment benefits and large state projects will need at least 15 percent state-certified apprentices, under two union-backed bills.
“ Scientists: The state will use $350 million from the state’s tobacco lawsuit settlement to help fund health- and crop research. This “Life Sciences Discovery Fund” was a top priority for Gov. Christine Gregoire.
“ Teachers and other school staff: After two years of “suspended” cost-of-living increases, the COLAs resume. Cost: $139 million. Remaining sore spot: those two years’ of raises seem lost forever.
“ Schools: Despite some Republican eye-rolling (“It’s always for the children,” one local lawmaker said of this year’s tax hikes), this session was a great one for public schools. Per-student money to shrink class sizes will rise from $254 to $450 by the 2008 school year. Cost: $138 million. Lawmakers also expanded the Learning Assistance Program for students – and will now distribute it based on the number of poor students in a district. Result: more money to Spokane-area schools. The Legislature also boosted money for special education, and set aside $620 million to help build and renovate schools, the most ever, according to House Speaker Frank Chopp.
“ Nervous Seattle-area drivers: Will get billions of dollars from an $8.5 billion transportation tax package. About $2.5 billion of the money is aimed at the Alaskan Way Viaduct and the SR 520 floating bridge, both thought to be in danger of collapsing in a major earthquake. Downside: Seattleites can expect to pay local taxes and tolls to help finish the job.
“ Colleges: A good year overall, but mixed for local schools. The state will spend $150 million more to increase college enrollments by 7,900 students, particularly at community and technical colleges. Washington State University will add students, particularly in Vancouver, which is about to become a four-year campus. WSU also got $32 million to build a new nursing-school building at its Riverpoint campus in Spokane.
The bad news for colleges: lawmakers refused – for now – to pay for WSU’s top priority, a $57 million bioscience research facility in Pullman. And Eastern Washington University didn’t get several million dollars in renovation and maintenance money it wanted.
“ State workers: After four years of no cost-of-living increases, most state workers will get COLAs of 3.2 percent this year and 1.6 percent next year. The downside: this budget was balanced partly by putting off some of their pension payments.
“ Nursing homes: Two years ago, nursing homes urged lawmakers to institute what became known as the “bed tax,” arguing that the money could then be returned to them with matching federal dollars. Surprise! Lawmakers kept the money for the state budget. This year, the Legislature agreed to phase out the tax over six years.
“ Sick kids: An early proposal to charge $3 “co-pays” to families getting free prescriptions through Medicaid was shot down, as was a $1 charge for rides to medical appointments. Lawmakers also restarted a health program for 10,000 kids of migrant farm workers, including illegal immigrants.
“ Poor college students: Washington will expand the State Need Grant by nearly $27 million a year, giving thousands more low-income students a chance to go to college. Among the changes: raising eligibility from a family income of about $37,000 a year to $43,300.
“ People without health insurance: Lawmakers canceled plans to cut 17,000 adults off the Basic Health Plan, a state-subsidized health insurance plan for the working poor.
“ The mentally ill: Health insurance companies will soon have to cover mental health problems the same way they cover physical ailments. The state also replaced $80 million cut from community mental health clinics by the federal government.
“ Drug addicts and alcoholics: Drug and alcohol treatment services will double. Cost: $21 million.
“ Homeless people: A new program backed by Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, will steer millions of dollars into housing for the homeless.
“ Abused kids: Upset by several recent deaths of children, Gregoire has ordered child welfare workers to investigate the most urgent reports of abuse within 24 hours, and within 72 hours for less serious cases. (The standard used to be 10 days.)
“ Local projects: The Fox Theater, Spokane River white-water park, Mobius science center, aerospace museum, Chewelah Peak Environmental Learning Center and many other local projects will share millions of dollars.
“ Child-care workers: Will get millions of dollars in increased reimbursements statewide, with special consideration for Spokane, where the rates are low.
“ Environmentalists: Lawmakers approved a version of California’s auto emissions rules for new cars, starting in 2009. They set aside $21 million to help fix Hood Canal’s oxygen-starved “dead zone.” And the state will also spend more than $45 million more to help clean up flame-retardant chemicals, diesel and other contaminants.
“ Seasonal workers: Unemployment benefits will now be based on an average of six months’ work, instead of 12. That means much bigger checks in the off-season for many workers, including construction crews, fishermen, part-time community college faculty and forest fire fighters.
“ Republicans: They spent most of the session protesting as Democrats handily passed almost anything they wanted. But Republicans teamed with conservative Democrats to win a few, mostly in the narrowly divided Senate. Conservatives managed to kill a bill that would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. They also torpedoed a bill setting guidelines for stem cell research, including fertilized human eggs donated for research.
“ College students: Need grants will rise, offsetting some of the pain, but the state is ending Promise Scholarships for students in the top 15 percent of their high-school class. And tuition’s going up: 5 percent a year at community colleges, 6 percent at schools like Eastern, and 7 percent at WSU and the University of Washington.
“ Criminals: A new prison’s on the way, and lawmakers passed a bill to require Sudafed-type drugs to be kept behind the counter at stores. A pilot project will also require buyers to show ID and sign a logbook. The drugs can be used to make methamphetamine.
“ Motorists, especially in rural Eastern Washington: They’ll pay more for gas, starting with a 3-cent increase on July 1. And expect a new $10 to $30 “vehicle weight fee,” as well as higher fees for driver’s licenses and permits. All this money is going to pay for transportation projects – particularly in Seattle. The good news: Seattleites will pay more, in tolls and local taxes.
“ Wealthy families – and maybe the people who work for family-owned businesses: Estates valued at $1.5 million or more will be subject to a newly resurrected estate tax.
“ Drinkers: On July 1, the state tax on a liter of booze will rise $1.33. If you do your drinking from a barstool or booth, however, you’ll catch a break: restaurants and bars are exempt from the increase.
“ Smokers: Also on July 1, the state tax on a pack of cigarettes will rise 60 cents, to $2.02. Idaho’s tax is less than a third of that.
“ Border communities: If people go to Idaho or Oregon to buy alcohol or cigarettes – and maybe gas – it’s likely to hurt stores in Washington.
“ Gays, lesbians, trans-gendered people and bisexuals: A bill barring discrimination against them in employment, housing and financial dealings failed to pass the Senate. Liberal lawmakers have been trying to pass the bill for 30 years.
“ Business: A mixed year. The major business groups were happy with the money for education and transportation, but unhappy about the increased unemployment benefits for seasonal workers. And the number of tax breaks increased.
“Families caring for a relative: Democrats tried to pass a bill setting up a $250-a-week stipend, paid for with a two-cent-per-hour fee on workers, for family members who take unpaid time off to care for a newborn, an adopted child or a sick relative. The bill, opposed by business groups, failed.
“ One-thousand state middle-managers: Gov. Gregoire ordered elimination of their jobs, saving an estimated $50 million.