March 11, 2012 in City

Legislature braces for remaining budget work

After long weekend, session heads into overtime
By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – For all the criticism heaped on the Washington Legislature for what it didn’t do – fix a yawning gap of more than $1 billion in the state’s main budget – this year’s session was not 60 days of partisan stalemate in which nothing happened.

Quite a bit happened, just not the main thing most legislators had on their agenda when arriving in Olympia on Jan. 8: solving a budget problem resulting from the state collecting less money than legislators thought when they cobbled together a two-year budget last spring.

Some were big events with far-reaching implications, like passage of a law that will allow same-sex couples to marry in Washington unless opponents gather enough signatures to put the issue on the November ballot and voters strike it down.

Some were smaller, relatively, but important to some segment of the population, like protections for charities that distribute used eyeglasses to people who can’t afford to buy their own, tax credits for films made in Washington and special license plates that honor 4-H Clubs and the state flower.

The Legislature must return Monday to find revisions to the general fund budget that can pass both chambers, and approve a separate budget for major construction projects the state will back.

Just before midnight Thursday, Gov. Chris Gregoire gave the 147 legislators a weekend to cool off and rest up. Come back at noon Monday, she said, adding that most of them should expect to go home again after the opening until party leaders reach a compromise on the biggest sticking points in the budget, and their budget experts decide how to spend the money their leaders agree is on the table.

“The last thing anybody wants to see is the full Legislature sitting up here with nothing to do,” she said.

Stick to the budgets and anything needed to make those budgets work, she warned: “I don’t want to bring up every random, conceivable bill in the world. We are not starting a regular session.”

Like Gregoire, legislators of both parties expressed frustration that budget problems weren’t solved, but many said there were successes.

High on the list for Gregoire, many Democrats and a few Republicans was the same-sex marriage bill, formally known as the Marriage Equality Act. It passed roughly halfway through the two-month session and may have been the high-water mark for Democrats, who control the Legislature; it picked up a few Republicans in each chamber.

As the budget impasse developed in the second half of the session, Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, of Walla Walla, contended Democrats had wasted that first month on “social engineering” rather than working on the budget.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, of Spokane, said Republican leaders predicted incorrectly the bill would cause the legislative process to break down. A GOP parliamentary takeover of the budget later in the session caused a much bigger setback, she said.

Another success for Gregoire, members of both parties, some business leaders and advocates of education reform was a new system for evaluating public school teachers and principals. It was, however, opposed by the Washington Education Association.

The old system rated teachers satisfactory or unsatisfactory. The new one will have four levels and requirements for improvements for teachers on the bottom rungs of that ladder. Those who don’t improve from the lowest level in a year can be dismissed.

Another education reform that passed was a plan to link struggling schools with the state’s public universities in a collaboration that brings professors and college students into the classrooms to find improvements. Another education reform proposal that started with much fanfare, to add charter schools to the state’s public education system, faltered.

Although the Legislature failed to pass two of its budgets, it did add $787 million to the state transportation budget, which covers roads, bridges, other infrastructure and ferries. That budget – which moved back and forth between chambers on the final day before finally passing – includes a total of $110 million this biennium for the North Spokane Corridor and $19 million for improvements on the Interstate 90 corridor through Spokane Valley. It also includes smaller projects like $1.3 million for improvements to the Spokane Transit Authority Plaza and $319,000 for paving U.S. Highway 2 from Euclid to Francis avenues.

Two other bills that passed just under the wire involve proposals to crack down on Medicaid fraud from two directions. One allows a type of lawsuit known as qui tam to recoup money lost to fraud; the other uses “predictive modeling” to spot fraud as it happens.

Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, a sponsor of the predictive modeling bill, said the state spends about $6.4 billion a year on Medicaid, and estimates suggest as much as 30 percent of state spending on Medicaid is based on fraudulent claims. Stopping even a fraction would save millions for state coffers, he said.

Banks and credit card companies use such modeling to spot fraudulent charges. “It looks for patterns, and when it finds one, you get a call from the credit card company about a strange charge in another city,” Parker said.

Washington will be the first state in the nation to use predictive modeling to thwart Medicaid fraud. The bill was a result of collaboration between Parker, a conservative GOP businessman, and two liberal Democrats from Seattle, Mary Lou Dickerson and Eileen Cody.

“It was very bipartisan,” he said.

That word was used quite a bit during the session, usually by people talking about its absence. It was a contrast to last year’s session in which members of both parties in the Senate voted for the final budget after a process both sides described as collaborative. Both sides said such collaboration was missing at various points in this session.

That Democrats and Republicans would have different priorities on a troubled budget wasn’t a surprise, Brown said early Friday after the gavel came down. “I wouldn’t have thought it would be quite this stark,” she added.

If legislators come back in a different frame of mind and look at new budget options already starting to circulate, they will find a solution, Brown predicted: “I think it’s just a matter of time.”

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