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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Senate passes $52.2 billion operating budget; proposal to support 20 new WSU Spokane medical school students fails

People gather at the sundial near capitol building in Olympia, Wash., on Friday, March 29, 2019. (Rachel La Corte / AP)

OLYMPIA – A $52.2 billion plan to cover most state programs and salaries for the next two years easily passed the Senate on Thursday with some Republican votes, setting up the next phase of the legislative budget process: Negotiations between the two chambers and the governor’s office to find a plan that all three can support.

They’ll have just over three weeks to work out the details if the Legislature is to adjourn on time on April 28.

The Senate operating budget is the smallest of the three — about $750 million below the House budget passed last Friday and nearly $2.5 billion below the plan announced in December by Gov. Jay Inslee — but like the others, it would spend more than half of the money on public schools.

Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, called it a “smart budget” that would add some $4.6 billion to what the state will spend on public schools in the two years that end on June 30.

It would add about $900 million for special education students, an area that many lawmakers believe was underfunded when the state boosted spending on schools over the past two years. School safety and mental health programs will also get a boost.

“Caring for young Washingtonians is a constant,” Rolfes said.

In higher education, Republicans tried to add 20 new medical students at the Washington State University Spokane College of Medicine for classes starting later this year and next. Sen. Jeff Holy, R-Spokane, said growing the incoming classes from 60 to 80 would keep the promise that was made when the school was established two years ago. There’s a need for more doctors and no shortage of potential students, he added.

Rolfes countered that the new medical school should continue doing what it does well now, and look to expand in the future. If the Legislature approves a new tax plan to invest more in higher education, that could be a way to pay for the extra med students, she said.

Although Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig joined the four Republican senators from the Spokane area in supporting the amendment for the 20 new med students, it failed on a 23-25 vote.

The plan also proposes significant increases for behavioral health and environmental protections along with college programs and financial aid. It doesn’t rely on major tax changes to cover any of its programs, but Senate Democrats have separate programs that would be covered by new taxes they’ll debate next week.

Sen. John Braun, of Centralia, the top Republican on the committee, said the strong economy puts the state in the best budget position of this century and he hopes some items his party tried to add to the budget will get consideration in the coming discussions. He also said the state should have debated major portions of the budget, such as the raises negotiated for state employees that add $1.5 billion to the budget, rather than just accepting them as is.

But Braun said he would vote for the budget, as did Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, who said she supported the increases in mental health programs and considered the budget “a work in progress.”

Other Republicans said they wouldn’t vote for the proposal, even if it was smallest of the three, with the boost in tax revenue and a drop in demand for some state services, “we could do better,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville.

The state should not be paying for a study that could include a recommendation to remove the Snake River dams to boost salmon, Schoesler said, because that’s a federal decision. It also shouldn’t add money to pay for Gov. Jay Inslee’s security while he is campaigning for president, he said.

Republicans tried unsuccessfully to remove more than $3.7 million that the budget proposes adding to the Washington State Patrol for Inslee’s security detail. Inslee’s campaign should pick up the tab, they said.

But state law requires the state patrol to provide security for Inslee, in the state or out, Rolfes said. “If we don’t fund it, they will still do it,” she said.