We recently spoke with Washington Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, and agree with his bottom-line assessment of the 2019 legislative session. “It was an unusually good year for Spokane,” he said. Education, health care, transportation and more will be better off in this part of the state.
Part of the region’s success in Olympia can be attributed to its outsized claim to positions of power. Seattle and the Puget Sound region might dwarf Spokane and Eastern Washington in population, but our state elected officials have risen high in the legislative standings. In the House, both the majority whip and chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee are Democrats from Spokane – Marcus Riccelli and Timm Ormsby, respectively. In the Senate, both the majority and minority leaders represent this part of the state – Billig and Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, respectively.
Together, they scored some significant funding wins for the Spokane region. Perhaps most important at the nexus of medicine, education and economic development.
Medical training and research
Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd Medical School, founded in 2015, will receive the money it needs not only to complete its initial expansion but also to add 20 more students, bringing enrollment to 80. Initial budget proposals did not include expected support for the successful school, but our delegation fought hard for it and secured $14.4 million.
The budget also includes funding for two additional child psychiatry residencies in Spokane, and lawmakers reauthorized the Health Sciences and Services Authority. The HSSA provides funding to Spokane County’s life sciences and health sciences research industries. Although it is funded locally by capturing a small fraction of sales tax collections, it exists at lawmakers’ pleasure.
For a region that sometimes struggles to attract medical providers, that’s huge because many doctors stay near where they train. “One of the goals is not just to get people to go to medical school here, but to practice here,” Billig said.
All of that medical spending promotes a singular vision for the region. Medical students will come here to train. Meanwhile, the doctors and scientists interested in research will have the economic development support from HSSA to turn their big ideas into real treatments for patients and business opportunities for the community. HSSA estimates that since its founding, it has helped create more than 500 jobs and generate $100 million of economic activity for the region.
Transportation and more
Other economic support comes from funding transportation projects, including the North Spokane Corridor freeway, bridge work and a transloader at Spokane International Airport. The latter will help move goods and attract manufacturing businesses.
Lawmakers also agreed to invest in the former Spokane Guild School, a new teen shelter and transitional housing project, and the new downtown Sportsplex. There’s even $1.5 million for the Museum of Arts and Culture, including $1 million for restoration of Campbell House.
And we’d be remiss not to mention improved funding for education across the state.
Those are all projects that will enhance the well-being of our region’s residents and the quality of life that already is so tremendous here.
Paying for it all
Yet we’d be negligent not to point out that the money has to come from somewhere. Lawmakers demonstrated a disappointing inability to prioritize and live within their means. While the region appreciates all of the good, most of the spending would have been smart priorities even without onerous new taxes.
Democrats were able to push through about $1 billion in tax increases. A surprise, probably unconstitutional tax increase will charge out-of-state banks more. Vapers will pay higher taxes, and so will travel agents and tour guides. Border communities like ours will take an economic hit as new law restricts retailers’ ability to waive sales tax for shoppers from out of state. And a payroll tax will reduce paychecks for all workers starting in 2022.
Sometimes revenue increases are necessary, but this isn’t one of those times. The fact that these increases came on top of strong revenue growth from a healthy state economy and people moving to Washington rightly has taxpayers scratching their heads.
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