OLYMPIA – After a 60-day sprint that included more than 1,700 bills and hundreds of millions of dollars in new spending, Washington state lawmakers on Thursday approved a $390 million supplemental budget and headed home for the year.
Despite near-record Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate and a flurry of bills, 2008 was a year of mostly modest proposals in Olympia. Money for new programs was scarce, and Democratic leaders were eager to avoid missteps in an election year.
Some of the highest-profile proposals – major property tax relief, universal health coverage, unionizing child-care workers and foster parents – faltered. So did a bill that would have made it easier for homeowners to sue builders over shoddy construction and an 11th-hour attempt to provide hundreds of millions of dollars for a new arena to keep the Sonics basketball team in Seattle.
Still, lawmakers got a lot done for such a short session, said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. A key victory for her: laying the groundwork for state tax-rebate checks for hundreds of thousands of low- and middle-income families. (But Gov. Chris Gregoire said late Thursday that she’s not sure whether she’ll sign the proposal into law.)
Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, called the session “modest on the money, but ambitious on the policy.”
In a few cases, Democrats launched programs with a little startup money and said they’ll work out how to pay for them during next year’s 105-day session. Among them: the tax rebate and a paid leave program for workers who take time off to bond with new children.
Republicans called that irresponsible, since budget analysts predict a $2.4 billion state budget shortfall next year.
“It’s a forward-looking budget – a budget looking only forward to the November election,” scoffed Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.
But Brown and other Democrats said Thursday they were proud of what lawmakers got done:
“ In a slim budget year, they steered millions of dollars more into teacher pay, mental health treatment, affordable housing and tutoring for students struggling to pass the state’s WASL test. Among the effects locally: Spokane Public Schools alone will see $2.2 million more, Mead schools will see an additional $785,000 and Medical Lake $544,000.
“ They expanded the rights and responsibilities for domestic partners, including same-sex couples.
“ They launched a historic deal with the Spokane and Colville tribes for a slight drawdown of Lake Roosevelt. The resulting billions of gallons will help Odessa-area farmers struggling with a dwindling aquifer, as well as cities and fish. Gregoire called it “the first major investment in new water in 30 years for Eastern Washington.”
“ They made several changes to help elderly and disabled people remain in their homes, including help and training for family members.
“ Under prodding from environmental groups, they launched bills to reduce global warming, grow more trees in cities, limit some toxic chemicals in toys and protect children from pesticide exposure. Gregoire said late Thursday she considers global warming to be “one of the largest threats to our economy and our future.”
“ They approved measures aimed at reining in gangs, drunken drivers and sex offenders, and boosted recruiting efforts for prison staff.
“ Partly by stripping unspent money out of places like an education account and the state convention center in Seattle, lawmakers also managed to set aside more than $835 million in savings for future lean years.
“ And they approved a bare-bones transportation budget that includes more than $2.4 million toward the Riverside Avenue extension, redirecting the road around the south side of Spokane’s Riverpoint campus.
In bills and in the budget, Brown said, are many small things that will help communities: help for farmers’ markets, locally grown food for schoolchildren, efforts to preserve critical habitat.
There’s $62,000 for a Spokane health study designed to be a benchmark for future community health funding. There’s $100,000 more for a Spokane-area autism center, additional money for cleft-palate surgery for children, and $100,000 for local fetal alcohol system help.
The state tax-rebate checks are likely to only initially average $85, Brown said. But for a family struggling with mid-winter utility bills, she said, that helps. And more than 1 in 5 central-Spokane families would qualify.
Nine lawmakers – including local Reps. Lynn Schindler, R-Otis Orchards and Bob Sump, R-Republic – are retiring this year. Among them: veteran House budget writer Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle.
Local lawmakers gave the session mixed reviews.
“I think we dodged a lot of bullets,” largely on land-use measures, said Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda. Launching major programs without immediately figuring out where the money will come from will prove to be a mistake, said Schindler.
“There’s all sorts of programs that are not going to be funded next year,” she predicted, “or they’re going to have to raise taxes.”
But Ormsby said that lawmakers built in safeguards for many bills. The tax credit, for example, will only start when the state can afford it.