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TACOMA – More than $1 billion in construction projects, from storm water runoff systems costing a thousand of dollars to the second half of a medical research facility in Spokane costing some $37 million, were signed into law Monday.
Gov. Chris Gregoire signed the capital projects budget at Tacoma Community College, where the state will spend $39 million for a new Health Career Center. She called it a package of jobs that present “a way out of the recession.”
While Gregoire and other legislators were lauding the list of projects, state Sen. Mike Baumgartner was requesting a study of whether election-year politics helped determine where money went. Districts represented by Democratic senators and Democratic senators facing re-election this year received far more than the state average per district and more than their GOP counterparts, his analysis showed.
“I voted for the capital budget and it contains many worthwhile projects, but we need to make sure it’s not used for pork barrel projects in election years,” said Baumgartner, a first-term state senator from Spokane’s 6th District.
“Everybody has to give. Everybody has to get,” Gov. Chris Gregoire says of the final budget deal.
OLYMPIA — Some state spending that legislators approved shortly before dawn Wednesday as part of a package deal to end the session may not survive the veto pen.
Gov. Chris Gregoire said she would sign the major reforms which were part of a negotiated package of legislation that came together in the closing days of one special session and needed a few hours of yet another special session to pass a bleary-eyed Legislature.
That package includes changes to state employees' early retirement system for workers hired after June, an attempt to equalize health insurance plans for public school workers and state employees, and an effort to project out four years to get state spending and revenue to match up.
But legislators stuck special projects into the supplemental budget “at a fevered pitch” in the final discussions, she said, and she's having staff comb through the 280-page document.
“I didn't agree to every dotted “i” and crossed “t” in that budget,” she said. “I'm sure there are things in there that I will veto. I want more in the ending fund balance.”
In her budget proposal, Gregoire called for an ending fund balance, which serves as a cushion against further economic downturns, of about $600 million. The budget passed Wednesday morning has a balance of just over half that, about $320 million. She doesn't have an estimate of how much she might cut, but said there's no way to trim out $300 million.
The reforms that Republicans were demanding in return for a vote on the budget, however, were carefully studied, she said. Those include:
* A change to the early retirement system for new state employees. Any new employee would be able to retire before age 65 after 30 years in state service by accepting a reduction of 5 percent for each year under 65. A 2000 law allows existing workers with 30 years service a 3 percent per year reduction between 65 and 55, and a 2007 law and 2007 allows for full benefits at 62.
* A review of the public school employees' health insurance systems — which vary from district to district — and incentives for the districts to offer plans that are in line with plans available to state employees, including plans with high deductibles and health savings accounts. One of the key elements of that legislation is to encourage districts to offer plans in which family insurance premiums that are no more than three times the cost of an individual's plan.
* Requirements that the Legislature adopt a four-year budget plan, rather than the current two-year plan, for the state General Fund that projects that scheduled expenses won't exceed projected revenues, and provides an ending balance that's in the black. The law also adds the state treasurer to the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council, which produces the revenue outlook that becomes key to legislative budgeting.
Those reforms were key to Republicans and some conservative Democrats voting for the budget. For weeks, Republicans demanded reforms before they'd consider any decision on taxes or vote on the budget. Democrats wanted a commitment on searching for more revenue, particularly the closure of a tax exemption for first mortgages written by large, multi-state banks. The stalemate that developed near the end of the regular session carried over into the special session. Last weekend, Gregoire and her staff put together a package that included all elements and began working with legislative leaders and budget experts on a way to make that work.
They ran out of time on Tuesday, and she called another special session, one that legislative leaders agreed would only last until they voted on the package of bills, and told them to stay until it was done.
She denied reports that one side wanted negotiations to fail, and doubted that it could have happened any faster.
In the end, Democrats got a budget very close to what they had proposed in the Senate but couldn't pass because three of their members lined up with the 22 Republicans to pass a different spending plan. The final budget had no cuts to public schools or state colleges, saved the Disability Lifeline and the Basic Health plan. Republicans got the reforms they said were needed to make the budget “sustainable.”
“They all got something critical. They all gave,” she said. Everyone was tired of cutting programs, she added.
Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, who represented GOP Senate leadership in the negotiations, agreed with Gregoire's assessments on negotiations and the final package.
“I think it was a package deal. The governor is exactly right: We're all tired of cuts,” Parlette said.
But Gregoire's comments that she'd have staff go through the final budget for things she might veto that were added at the last minute struck one government watchdog as odd. Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center questioned why it was alright for the governor to say she didn't have enough time to review the final product when legislators had to vote on it without having time to study it, and the public never saw the final product before it was passed into law.
OLYMPIA – With a Senate panel considering a new rewrite of the state’s medical marijuana laws, Gov. Chris Gregoire said Wednesday she’ll push to get the federal government to rewrite its laws and make the drug legal to treat some conditions.
The newest attempt to regulate some aspects of medical marijuana had few supporters for its debut in the Senate Ways and Means Committee Wednesday morning. Its sponsor, Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Wells, D-Seattle, conceded SB 5955 was drafted in a hurry and needed revision.
Steve Sarich of CannaCare, which operates medical marijuana clinics and dispensaries, said if the goal was to provide clarity, allowing each city and county to set limits on the drug won’t do that: “You guys are creating chaos if you pass this measure.”..
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Democratic leaders told the Greater Spokane Inc. Legislative Forum the budget, which state law requires the governor to produce before the session starts in January, said they don’t agree with all the cuts being proposed. The spending plan largely eliminates the Basic Health Plan for low income residents, health care for children, and changes school funding formulas.
“She’s laid out a blue print, not exactly a map,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane said.