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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

WSU med school bills hit detour

OLYMPIA -- Bills that would give Washington State University the authority to start a medical school in Spokane, which last week seemed on the fast track, have hit a legislative detour.

The House and Senate budget committees will  hold hearings on the costs  of a proposed medical school before legislative leaders will allow full votes in either chamber.

Supporters of the project said today it's not a roadblock, but bill sponsors are surprised that legislation specifically rewritten to leave funding questions for later will need approval from the House Appropriations and Senate Ways and Means committees before facing full votes in each chamber.

"We certainly hope the bill doesn't get caught up in overall budget negotiations," Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane, said.

Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said the bills were written to split the discussion over a new medical school in Spokane. The current bills focused on rewriting state law that to give WSU the authority to offer that education; the amount of money the state would provide for the school would be decided later. State law currently restricts medical education to UW. The law, which has its roots in the Legislature settling a fight over education majors for the two institutions in 1917, is antiquated, Riccelli and Baumgartner both argue.

Companion bills in each chamber were amended to remove language that directs the WSU regents to start a school, and last week passed out of each chamber's Higher Education Committee with directions to go to the group that schedules bills for a vote of the full chamber.

The University of Washington has raised questions about past spending for its medical school program in Spokane that was funneled through WSU when both schools were involved in the program. But that's not the reason the bills were referred to budget committees, sources said.

The nonpartisan legal counsel for the Senate Ways and Means Committee said that panel should hold a hearing on the proposal because of the long-term budget implications, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said. That committee, where a third of the members are co-sponsors of the Senate version of the bill, scheduled a hearing on the bill for tomorrow

"I'm sure the medical school will stand on its own merits," said Schoesler, who is a co-sponsor of the bill and a member of the Ways and Means Committee.

The House Appropriations Committee Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said there's nothing unusual about a bill being routed through the budget committee even though it has no price tag attached. 

"This is a bill that in essence creates an empty bucket. . . a new opportunity to spend money," Hunter said. "All bills that look like this come to Appropriations. It's a policy bill that results in spending tens of millions of dollars."

WSU officials have said they will ask for $2.5 million in the 2015-17 budget to seek accreditation for the school, but if the school is approved they will be seeking millions in state support for medical students. UW is seeking $8 million in the coming two-year budget for its medical students in Spokane.

Hunter, who described himself as neutral on the WSU med school, isn't sure when his committee will hold a hearing on the House version of the bill. When it does, however, he expects supporters to address some of the other issues around the shortage of physicians in Eastern Washington and some other rural areas. He's particularly concerned about the level of training beyond medical school, the residencies that will train those graduates in primary care and family medicine and some experts say are the key to getting more doctors in under-served areas.

"It is way more complicated than the supporters or opponents (of the medical school) will tell you," Hunter said. 

Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981 and retired in 2021. He is currently the political and state government correspondent covering Washington state.

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