Nearly six months after they convened and two days before the end of the second special session, legislators in Olympia reached a budget deal on Thursday morning. But it wasn’t until late that night that the details were available. Then lawmakers in both chambers voted on it the next day. Gov. Jay Inslee was expected to sign the budget on Sunday.
This is a dash to the finish line that should’ve been a deliberative stroll. As is, the state’s leaders barely averted a partial government shutdown.
Budget writers have a tough task, and this year was no different. But in the end, much of the $2.3 billion budget hole they faced in January was filled before they reached a deal. Late-session reports showed higher revenue and lower social service caseloads than expected, which appeared to be the key to breaking the long impasse between the House and the Senate. (Suggestion: Move up the date of the forecasts.)
Even then, negotiations took the second special session to the brink, and many legislators will vote on the budget without having had much time to review it. We’ve heard of “hurry up and wait,” but this was “wait, wait, wait and hurry up.”
Negotiators said not to worry; no surprises are included. But that’s not good enough. No state legislator should be comfortable with the sluggish pace and opacity of the budget process.
As for the deal itself, nearly 70 percent of the budget gap ($1.6 billion) was closed by reduced spending and other savings. That’s the good news. However, some money was “redirected” from capital accounts; some was culled from “resource changes.” In short, budget gimmicks were employed.
In a surprise, the budget freezes college tuition for at least one year, and possibly two. As expected, an additional $1 billion is earmarked for K-12 education to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s edict. However, lawmakers once again shrugged off voter initiatives on smaller class sizes and teacher pay increases.
On the revenue side, there were modest changes. The state’s estate tax was aligned with the federal, and a cellphone levy was extended to land lines. Temporary taxes on beer and some services were allowed to expire. Some tax exemptions survived House efforts to eliminate them. Workers’ compensation escaped needed reforms sought by Republicans but blocked by Democrats.
By going “all in” on Medicaid expansion, the state was able to leverage federal dollars to the tune of $351 million, which means about 300,000 more low-income residents will have health care coverage. On the other hand, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families took a $162 million hit.
At first glance, this would appear to be a responsible budget that reflects reasonable compromises. But with so few surprises, it’s puzzling that it took so long.
Normally, this would be the end for the Legislature, but as of Friday afternoon a revenue package for transportation projects was parked in the Senate after passage in the House. No rest for the procrastinators.