OLYMPIA – The Senate called for another $1 billion in spending in the state’s primary budget Thursday, approving increases for homelessness, environment and health care costs.
On a bipartisan vote, senators sent the House their plans to enlarge the state’s already record operating budget to about $56 billion, using higher than anticipated tax money from the state’s strong economy. The House is scheduled to vote on its budget proposal in the coming days, and both chambers must agree to a final budget by March 12.
In a sometimes contentious debate, however, Democrats rejected Republican calls to spend some of that extra money to cut property taxes, divert some tax money to cover transportation costs or suspend the state park system’s Discover Pass fees for a year.
Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Pierce County, suggested using any new boost in tax revenue that comes between now and the next revenue report in September to lower property taxes next year. It would be a way of telling taxpayers legislators hear them, he said.
“These are real people who are struggling and need a little help on their property tax,” Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said.
Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said everyone wants low taxes, but they also want to live in a state that’s thriving. “These are smart investments we need to make with these funds.”
O’Ban’s amendment failed on a partisan vote, as did a proposal to use the sales tax collected on vehicle sales for transportation projects, which are facing a deficit if Initiative 976 is upheld. It would amount to a transfer of $117 million through June 2021, which the nearly $56 billion budget could easily absorb, Sen. Phil Fortunato, R-Auburn said.
But over four years, it’s about $726 million, Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said. Sales taxes on vehicles might be a part of the solution for I-976 and the transportation budget, she said, but those decisions haven’t been made yet.
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said the state instituted the Discover Pass to help cover the costs of state parks during the recession. It should drop that fee now that the economy is doing well, he said.
“Let’s give the hardworking taxpayers something for their money,” he said.
The state is planning to make Discover Passes available at libraries for residents to check out and use, Sen. Kevin Van de Wege, D-Sequim, said. The passes have helped keep the homeless problem from moving onto public lands, he added.
“It’s against the law to camp (in state parks) without a permit,” Schoesler said.
Republicans tried to use amendments to add policy changes they’ve been unable to make through other forms of legislation. They proposed adding requirements that homeless people who take advantage of state-sponsored housing programs promise to enroll in treatment programs; that divert money from a study on Snake River dams to improving a salmon hatchery in the Puget Sound; and that open to the public the contract negotiations between the governor’s office and the state employees unions.
All were voted down before the final version of the budget passed.
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