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Monday, July 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  WA Government

Legislators chose help for schools, colleges and mental help – and the taxes to pay for it

OLYMPIA – The lights come on as the sun goes down behind the Legislative Building on the Capitol Campus last week a day after the 2019 session ended. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
OLYMPIA – The lights come on as the sun goes down behind the Legislative Building on the Capitol Campus last week a day after the 2019 session ended. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – To govern is to choose, as Gov. Jay Inslee is fond of saying.

The Legislature made many choices in its 105-day session, not just with the 485 bills it passed, but with nearly the 1,800 it didn’t. With those choices, some groups or problems got help, others didn’t.

Lawmakers’ choices will mean help for Washington residents with mental health or addiction problems, children in public schools – particularly those in special education programs – and those struggling to find a home they can afford.

They chose to address some problems with the environment, but not others, and to spend more on state forests to get better care, which could mean forests are less likely to be consumed by wildfires. In the coming summers, that could help the state’s residents in reducing the smoke from those fires.

They chose to provide more help for college students and their families struggling to pay for higher education. To pay for that help, they chose to increase the business and occupation tax for professional services businesses and tech companies.

They also chose higher taxes on international banks and expensive home sales to cover other spending in the budget.

Not all choices cost money. Lawmakers chose to remove the personal or philosophical exemption for parents who don’t want their children to have the measles, mumps and rubella vaccination – something that opponents said was eliminating their choice but supporters said was choosing public safety over an individual’s preference.

Here’s a look at some of those choices:

Public schools

It was a good session for Washington’s public school system, particularly for special education programs, as the Legislature stepped up to the fact that educating those students is part of “basic education.” There’s about $155 million in extra funding for special education students, and a slightly more generous formula for awarding it.

Lawmakers are still struggling with the changes they made in 2017 to the way public schools get their money, and the concept that all the costs of basic education are borne by the state, while the costs of other programs borne by the local district through local property taxes.

From the state side, the maintenance level – or cost of basic education programs and policies already on the books – went up nearly $4 billion, with $2.1 billion for employee salaries, another $497 million for cost-of-living adjustments and $245 million for increased enrollment. There’s $318 million for a new benefits package that was negotiated for school employees statewide. Bad news for some districts: it’s more expensive than the benefits package they offered, and districts are on the hook for the same costs of those benefits for employees who aren’t considered basic education.

Districts got some help on local property tax levies, and another form of state funding known as local effort assistance, but whether those changes will forestall some or most layoffs from their projected shortfalls will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis among the state’s 295 school districts.

Higher education

Washington’s universities, colleges, community and technical colleges, and the students enrolling in them, will get a $393 million boost to a new part of the general operating budget known as the Workforce Education Investment Account.

The State Need Grant, which is being renamed the Washington College Grant, will grow by $165 million, provide more assistance and cover more applicants. Community and technical colleges will get about $74 million more for faculty salaries in high demand areas. The schools will also get more enrollment slots for high demand areas like computer science, engineering and nursing, and the Guided Pathways program, which helps low-income and first-time students focus on programs that prepare them for a job or transfer to a four-year college, will get an extra $40 million.

The Elson Floyd College of Medicine will get a total of $21 million to cover the costs of the third and fourth year students, plus the growth of its first-year classes from 60 to 80 students.

Mental health care

The 2019 legislative session was a good one for Washington residents seeking help with mental health or addiction problems. The state’s system of behavioral health care is going to get an upgrade and a major infusion of cash.

The state will spend $70 million on increased staffing at Western State and Eastern State hospitals, another $74 million to cover improvements in “forensic services,” which includes patients awaiting examination to see if they are capable of standing trial and those found not guilty by reason of insanity. It will spend another $22 million to improve safety at Western State.

The capital budget has more than $24 million for repairs and renovations on the Eastern State campus.

In an effort to get other patients out of the two state mental hospitals, the state will spend $47 million to place some in community hospitals for evaluation and placement of civil commitments of as many as 180 days. It will also spend $35 million to expand the number of services and beds in community settings.

Planning will also begin for a new teaching hospital devoted to psychiatric care at the University of Washington School of Medicine to train doctors, nurses and other medical staff to fill job openings around the state.

Homelessness and human services

The state capital budget has $175 million for the Housing Trust fund to help develop affordable housing. In the operating budget, lawmakers approved provided $41 million for housing assistance, including $14.5 million to local governments and organizations to help with rent and utility payments and other essential needs. That budget has another $8.5 million to help homeless youth.

In an attempt to cut down on homelessness, the Legislature also passed laws giving tenants a minimum of 60 days more notice before rent increases, and extending eviction notices from 3 days to 14.

The operating budget also includes $18 million for programs to help residents dealing with HIV and AIDS, in the ways of medical and support services. Services for crime victims were increased by $6.8 million to reimburse the cost of medical care.

Environment

For Inslee and others warning of global climate change and fighting for cleaner energy, it was a very good session. The Legislature approved a bill that will phase out coal by 2025, have utilities balance their natural gas use with renewable energy sources by 2030 and get all their retail energy load from non-emitting sources by 2045. The operating budget has $187 million to cover the first two years of that effort.

In an effort to reduce plastic waste, the Department of Ecology was ordered to study the amount of plastic packaging sold and thrown out in the state, come up with ways to sort and recycle it and report back by Oct. 31, 2020. But a proposal for a statewide ban on plastic grocery bags failed to get a final vote in the last weekend of the session, and a proposal to ban single-use plastic straws passed the Senate, but not the House.

Lawmakers approved $45 million to fight wildfires and improve forest health as a way of preventing future wildfires.

Washington may become the first in the nation with a new kind of recycling. The Legislature approved human composting as an alternative to burial or cremation.

It was a good session for orcas, who will be protected from tourist boats getting too close, cleaning up a Puget Sound that got too dirty and increased hatchery production for salmon. That would seem to be a good session for salmon, whose numbers might grow – but primarily so they can be eaten by orcas.

Supporters of removing the Snake River dams to improve salmon runs got a $750,000 study on the effects of such a change, despite Republicans’ objection that the dams are federal projects, and removing them is a decision for Congress.

It wasn’t such a good session for razor clams, who seemed on track to be designated the official state clam. A bill to do that came out of the House in early March, 98-0; it got a unanimous recommendation from a Senate committee, then disappeared from the Senate calendar.

Other items

It was a very good session for state workers, with an increase of $451 million to cover the costs of new collective bargaining agreements for union workers and comparable raises for others. Republicans argued it was a bad session for any oversight of those contracts, which are negotiated by the governor’s staff and only subject to an up or down vote.

But it was a good session for elected officials, too, because the salary increases recommended by a state commission were also approved, with a price tag of $10 million.

It was a hopeful session for people who don’t want to switch their clocks twice a year. A bill that would keep the state on daylight saving time all year passed both chambers, but it can’t take effect unless Congress gives its own OK.

It was a bad session for rapists who haven’t been caught, but could turn out to be a better one for their victims. The state will spend $10 million to beef up crime laboratory staff to clear up a backlog of rape kits, plus money to renovate a lab in in Vancouver so the state can process more, faster.

People who keep driving drunk or high on drugs, despite three previous convictions for driving under the influence, got a bit of a reprieve. A fourth DUI in 10 years can now be charged as a felony, but an effort to extend the look-back period to 15 years, along with some other changes to the impaired driving law, died as time ran out on the final day of the session.

Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, sponsor of the longer look-back provision, said he’d try again next year.

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