OLYMPIA – With strong bipartisan majorities in both houses, the Legislature passed a $33.6 billion operating budget Friday, staving off a threatened shutdown of some state government services.
After a 105-day regular session, a first special session of 30 days and a second special session in its 16th day, a budget that some described as not having anything that everyone might want but enough things that most can support sailed through both chambers.
“Yippee! A budget,” Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said as he rose to support the proposal he described as “better than I ever could have hoped for when we started the session.”
Gov. Jay Inslee is scheduled to sign it Sunday, the last day of the fiscal year. Without the budget, the state wouldn’t have the legal authority to continue some programs and pay some salaries in the new fiscal year, which begins Monday.
The budget was the subject of months of negotiations, debates over the amount of money to be added to public schools or social service programs and taxes that would be raised or reduced.
The final product of those negotiations adds about $1 billion in new money for public schools, with an emphasis on all-day kindergarten for the state’s poorer schools, smaller class sizes in the earliest grades and an extra 80 hours of instruction for junior high and high school students. The state will also give school districts more financial help with transportation, maintenance, supplies and operating costs.
The budget freezes tuition at the state’s colleges and universities for this year, and makes it difficult to raise tuition next year. Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, who at one point proposed reducing tuition by 3 percent, called the freeze a victory considering that some legislators and Inslee proposed raising tuition at the beginning of the session.
“It was a goal, but it was also a tactic,” Baumgartner said of the proposal to cut tuition.
The budget was notable for several reasons, said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. For the first time since 1986, tuition at the state’s colleges and universities won’t go up, he said. A long list of tax increases proposed early in the session weren’t approved. Temporary taxes on service businesses and on some brands of beer, passed at the depths of the recession, will expire on Sunday as scheduled.
“We kept our promise to repeal the temporary taxes,” said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia. “I believe the benefits far outweigh the shortcomings.”
The budget adds about 300,000 residents to health care through the expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act. Some of the Senate’s most conservative Republicans tried to strip the budget of the extra health care provisions, contending the state should not trust the new federal law, which they called Obamacare. The state should delay until it sees if it works, said Sen. John Smith, of Colville: “There are certain things that once you do, you can’t undo them.”
“I’m afraid the whole system’s going to come crashing down upon us,” added Sen. Mike Padden, of Spokane Valley.
Democrats shot back that that would blow a $300 million hole in the budget and leave hundreds of thousands without a chance for health insurance. Sen. Nathan Schlicher, a physician from Gig Harbor, said the expansion of Medicaid was settled as a budget issue weeks ago, and challenged Republicans: “You come and work a day in my emergency department.”
In fact, previous budgets drafted and passed by the predominantly Republican majority coalition included the expansion. Friday’s amendment failed on a 16-32 vote.
Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said the Medicaid expansion will affect an estimated 30,000 people in Spokane, about 24,000 who will become eligible for health coverage and about 6,000 people who are currently eligible but haven’t signed up.
The budget also contains $6 million for the new medical school at Spokane’s Riverpoint campus. It’s a plus for Spokane and for the state, which will need more doctors to handle the increase in patients from the expansion of Medicaid, said Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane.
But it has no money for Innovate Washington, a program in the Department of Commerce that includes the former SIRTI facility; that’s a cut of $5.6 million from the 2011-13 budget.
While some senators and representatives praised the bipartisan, bicameral process that finally led to the budget agreement that was announced Thursday, others said the Legislature deserves the public’s criticism for taking so long. Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-Orcas Island, said they owed an apology to tens of thousands of state workers for the stress created by not knowing until Friday evening whether they would be working on Monday because a partial government shutdown would have been required, if the budget had not passed.