OLYMPIA – After 165 days of partisan bickering over taxes and spending, the Legislature moved swiftly Monday to pass a $38.2 billion budget to run state government for the next two years. The Senate also passed and sent to the House a plan to spend $16.1 billion on transportation projects over the next 16 years.
The state operating budget, needed to avoid a partial government shutdown on Wednesday, covers a wide array of state programs, from public schools and colleges to mental health and social services. It was the main job of the Legislature this year and forced lawmakers into a triple overtime session that started Sunday. Released to the public and most members shortly after lunch, it passed the Senate on a 38-10 vote around 6 p.m. and cleared the House on an even stronger 90-8 count just two hours later.
The spending plan has no new general taxes, although it makes changes to existing tax laws to contribute about $185 million to the overall revenue.
“We did it by living within our means,” Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Andy Hill said. They were helped by the fact that the state’s “means” grew by almost $1 billion in the past seven months as the state’s economy continued to strengthen.
“I think everybody should have something they can hang their hats on and vote for,” Hill said as he introduced the budget on the Senate floor.
The budget cuts tuition at state colleges and universities, giving all college students a 5 percent cut for the coming school year and additional cuts for the four-year institutions in the fall of 2016. Washington State University and the University of Washington would have a tuition cut that amounts to 15 percent by 2016, and the regional universities’ reduction would total 20 percent.
They would be the first tuition cuts in state history, said Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane.
“This is something to celebrate,” Baumgartner told colleagues before they unanimously passed a separate bill spelling out the tuition cuts.
University spending in the operating budget includes money to expand medical education in Spokane, with Washington State University allotted $2.5 million to seek accreditation for its new medical school, and the University of Washington $9 million for its multistate WWAMI program, with instructions to enroll 60 first-year medical students in each of the next two years.
The transportation budget, which was on life-support for much of the session, was also unveiled Monday and passed the Senate 39-9. It raises gasoline taxes a total of 11.9 cents per gallon over two years – 7 cents Aug. 1 and 4.9 cents on July 1, 2016. It also increases weight fees for trucks and passenger vehicles and levies a $5 fee on all new studded tires sold after July 1, 2016. During the 16-year span, it would spend more than $1 billion on projects in the Spokane area, including some $879 million to complete the North Spokane Corridor.
Also on the project list for the Spokane area: $26.5 million over the next four years for the Medical Lake/Geiger interchange project on the West Plains, and a similar amount for work on the I-90 corridor in Spokane Valley. The current list calls for expansion of the highway between Barker and Harvard roads, although Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said that would be changed in the future for a new Liberty Lake interchange at Henry Road.
The University District Gateway Bridge would get $8.8 million, and improvements to U.S. Highway 195 between Colfax and Spangle total $17.6 million during the next six years. And $47 million would be set aside for renovations of the Palouse River – Coulee City Railroad. The Spokane Central Line, a transit project in the city of Spokane, would receive $15 million.
“This package is a win for the people of Spokane,” said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane.
Some Senate Democrats voted for the transportation budget, but only after criticizing a provision that restricts the state’s ability to institute low-carbon fuel standards. This provision, a compromise to get Republican support for a gas tax increase, was called by some a “poison pill” because Inslee has been a strong proponent of carbon reduction. Recently, Inslee said he would sign a transportation package even with those restrictions.
Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Seattle, said that while Inslee and other Democrats were accepting the restrictions, “the next generation is going to swallow the poison pill” by dealing with the effects of climate change.
Some Senate Republicans balked at increases that will make Washington’s gasoline taxes the highest in the nation, as well as giving local governments further authority to raise taxes for transportation and transit. “It’s a tax lover’s dream,” said Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.
The House will take up the transportation budget today. If it passes without any amendments, it also will go directly to Inslee. Legislative leaders said they expect to adjourn today.
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