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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Legislature to vote on $52.4 billion budget today

The Washington Capitol is seen on Saturday, April 27, 2019, in Olympia. (Rachel La Corte / AP)

OLYMPIA – The Legislature moved toward approval of a $52.4 billion budget with more money for schools, college aid and mental health care – as well as a package of new taxes to pay for some of that – and a likely adjournment sometime Sunday.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate signed onto a compromise budget Saturday afternoon that was worked out between two different spending plans.

“This budget is a reflection of values across the state,” said House Appropriations Chairman Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane.

Republican budget leaders said there were some good things in the budget, but criticized the new taxes.

“We have a lot of the same concerns,” said Sen. John Braun, of Centralia, the top Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “The real issue is (Democrats) see the solution as more revenue.”

But Ormsby argued that without that extra revenue, some of those concerns would not be addressed.

At $52.4 billion over two years, the operating budget is the largest in state history, and more than $7 billion above the current budget of $44.8 billion.

About $4 billion of that increase is to maintain the increases for schools required by the Legislature’s decision to meet a state Supreme Court order to cover the costs of basic education for some 1 million public school children in Washington. That total includes some $2.6 billion for salaries and cost-of-living adjustments for school employees and $245 million to handle growing enrollment. Another $319 million will be spent for a statewide package of school employee benefits negotiated last year; in the past, employee benefits were negotiated by each district.

Raises for state employees and the school employee benefits package were being approved without serious scrutiny, Braun contended.

School districts would get a total of $155 million extra for special education, with adjustments to the formulas that determine how that money is distributed.

Still under debate is a change to the cap on property tax levies that districts use to cover programs and salaries not part of “basic education,” which the court said is the sole responsibility of the state. In a late night session Friday, the House passed one version of a levy bill and the Senate a different version.

The budget also sets aside nearly $172 million for mental and behavioral health programs, another area where the state is under a court order to improve services and was facing some $96 million in fines. It would increase the number of psychiatric beds in local communities and improve safety at state hospitals.

Many of the increases to mental health programs are a result of bipartisan agreements, said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle.

The budget also has historic increases for state colleges and universities, with $146 million for college employee wages and the state Need Grant program. But it calls for another $393 million from a special dedicated fund designed to clear up the backlog of students who are waiting for need grants, increase the number of faculty in key fields, and expand enrollment for high-demand majors. That fund also has about $21 million for the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine at Washington State University Spokane, to cover the costs of the third and fourth years of study for current students, and add 20 more students to the first-year classes this summer and in 2020.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said that fund is designed to address “decades-long, decades-needed investment in higher education.” To pay for it, Democrats are calling for an increase in the business and occupation tax for many of the service and technology businesses that employ large numbers of graduates from those majors.

The budget also would increase money for certain environmental programs and for wildfire prevention, which were important throughout the state, Rolfes said.

All residents “have a shared commitment to make sure the orca whales don’t go extinct on our watch,” she said.

Additionally, “Nobody likes to see the forests burning all summer,” she said.

On a bipartisan vote, the special conference committee on the operating budget approved the negotiated spending plan and sent it to each chamber, where it must pass, without amendments, by midnight Sunday.

Both chambers must also pass tax changes that include a graduated rate instead of the current flat-rate Real Estate Excise Tax; a near doubling of the B&O tax on major banks; changing the out-of-state resident exemption to the sales tax to a refund program: and the 0.3 percent increase in the B&O tax to certain businesses to pay for programs in the dedicated higher education fund.

Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Seattle, said the public was let down by the process that resulted in the budget being released the afternoon before the session is scheduled to end.

“I’m glad there’s a deal. The new taxes probably weren’t necessary,” he said.

But Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, said the tax changes were a “small step” toward improving the state’s tax system, which Democrats have long contended was regressive and falls more heavily on the poor. “I have no problem going home to my working-class district with this tax package,” she said.