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 an unexpected 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 Tuesday 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,” said Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane.
Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, said the bills were written to split the discussion over a new medical school in Spokane. The first step was to rewrite state law to give WSU the authority to offer that medical 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 specifically directs the WSU regents to start a school, and instead merely give them the permission. Those passed out of each chamber’s Higher Education Committee last week with directions to go to the committees that schedule bills for a vote of the full chamber. A day or so later, they were rerouted to the budget committees by legislative leaders.
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 reportedly not the reason the bills were referred to budget committees.
The nonpartisan legal counsel for the Senate Ways and Means Committee said the panel should consider the proposal because of its long-term budget implications, said Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. That committee, where a third of the members are co-sponsors of the Senate version of the bill, scheduled a hearing for today.
“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 committee.
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 the university will be seeking millions in state support for medical students at some future date. UW is seeking $8 million in the coming two-year budget for its medical students in Spokane.
The House bill has 65 sponsors or co-sponsors, and significant support on the Appropriations Committee, including the vice chairman, Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane; the ranking Republican, Bruce Chandler, of Granger; and the assistant ranking Republican, Kevin Parker, of Spokane.
Hunter, who described himself as neutral on the WSU med school, said he’s not interested in the political infighting over the bill. A hearing in that committee isn’t scheduled yet, but when it occurs 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, and the residencies that will train those graduates in primary care and family medicine, which some experts say are a key to getting more doctors in underserved areas.
“It is way more complicated than the supporters or opponents (of the medical school) will tell you,” Hunter said.
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