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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington state Senate Democrats release $69 billion budget proposal with focus on education, behavioral health

State Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, speaks in a news conference unveiling Senate Democrats' $69.2 billion budget proposal.

Senate Democrats proposed a $69.2 billion two-year budget that would make significant investments in the state’s behavioral health system, programs to reverse learning loss in public schools, climate change initiatives and housing shortages.

The state House of Representatives will release its proposed budget on Monday, and the two chambers will have to consolidate their proposals into one by the end of the legislative session on April 23.

Public schools would receive the largest slice of the budget: $30.7 billion. That’s 10.5% more than the last budget.

The state’s universities and other post-secondary schools would receive $5.7 billion.

The remaining half of the budget is divvied among government operations and state run programs and services, with almost $10 billion going to the Department of Social and Health Services and another $14.5 billion going to other services such as subsidizing health insurance through the Health Care Authority.

The Senate proposal leaves $3.8 billion in reserves as the state heads into an uncertain economy in the coming years. Earlier this week, the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council released a revenue forecast that predicts less money than lawmakers thought they would have to spend over the next two years, due to high inflation and economic uncertainty following the country’s banking crisis.

The Senate proposal spends less than Gov. Jay Inslee’s $70 billion proposal released in December.

The proposal does not include any new taxes but does include funds from the capital gains tax, which is currently held up in the state Supreme Court. Democratic budget writers said they have enough left in reserves to make up for the tax for a year if it is ruled unconstitutional by the courts.

The Democrats’ proposal had support among top Republicans.

Ways and Means Committee Republican leader Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, said the budget was the “most inclusive budget proposal we’ve seen in many years.”

“The result of all this is a proposal that would be far better for our state as a whole than what the governor wanted for the next two years,” Wilson said in a statement.

In addition to the $69 billion, the Senate would use another $700 million from the new cap-and-trade program and about $200 million in leftover COVID-19 federal relief funds. The proposal does not rely on any new taxes or fees.

“Our state’s economy remains strong,” Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, said. “I’m very proud we’ve seen substantial economic growth while we’re weathering the pandemic.”

What’s funded

The budget proposal would make new investments of $2.9 billion into the state’s K-12 schools to address learning loss and account for higher costs due to inflation. It also invests almost $500 million to increase funding for special education programs.

Rolfes said the additional funding will help schools address inflation and workforce costs, but those who are struggling with a lack of enrollment may not see significant help from this budget.

“Some of the districts are still going to be struggling if their enrollment went down, but I think it’s going to help a lot,” Rolfes said.

Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, praised the budget for its focus on addressing learning loss and increasing funding for special education.

“Our education system has slipped from one of the best in the nation to the middle of the pack. That’s unacceptable,” Braun said in a statement.

One priority for legislators this session was filling the state’s growing gap in the behavioral health system and addressing the 2021 state Supreme Court decision that determined said Washington’s drug possession law was unconstitutional.

The Senate budget proposal would invest more than $400 million in behavioral health, including increasing rates for providers, building new facilities and creating new programs for people with developmental disabilities or chronic mental illness. It also would invest more than $50 million in substance use disorder treatment.

Another $170 million would be spent to address the state’s treatment options for drug offenders through funding for local courts and judicial system, improving diversion programs and creating crisis relief centers statewide.

Some funding would be provided to study vehicle pursuits, a controversial topic that has been top of mind for legislators all session. Law enforcement says current law, which passed in 2021, is hindering their ability to pursue vehicles with suspected criminals. Supporters say more data is needed before changing the policy because fewer car chases save lives.

The budget proposal provides $3 million for law enforcement technology grants so agencies can purchase modern vehicle pursuit management technology, like GPS or drones. It also provides $165 million to study vehicle pursuits and create a model policy to be given to the Legislature by Oct. 31, 2024.

Housing has remained a top priority for legislators in both parties this year. Along with policies to increase access to duplexes, triplexes and mother-in-law units, the Legislature is looking at ways to increase funding to build more housing quickly.

Most of that would come out of the state’s capital budget, which funds construction projects across the state, but the Senate’s operating budget proposal spends more than $200 million on housing and homelessness, increasing funding for emergency housing, shelter capacity and grants for those living in rights-of way and encampments.

The proposal uses $679 million from the state’s new cap-and-trade program to fund investments in fighting climate change. The cap-and-trade program requires the state’s largest polluters clean up their work or buy allowances from the state to comply.

Lawmakers are expecting the program to generate more than $2 billion for the state through 2025. The proposal uses $679 million of it. Much of the rest is appropriated in the state’s capital and transportation budgets. Projects that would be funded include forest sequestration initiatives that capture and store carbon in the air; building and utility assistance to help mitigate energy costs for low-income families; grants for cities with climate action plans; and projects that support communities burdened by climate effects.

Rolfes said the Senate Democrats’ focus in allocating the funds was to move toward a green energy economy and reducing the health effects of pollution.

Twenty million dollars would be allocated to reproductive health services to reimburse abortion clinics, increase workforce retention and fund grants at higher education facilities that offer abortion care training.

The budget proposal would spend $828 million to adjust wages for state employees because of collective bargaining agreements, including giving $1,000 bonuses to those who received a COVID-19 booster.

Locally, the proposal provides Spokane with funding to expand classes at its basic law enforcement academy and provides funding for Washington State University and Eastern Washington University to improve wages for nurse educators and improve their nursing programs.

It also would pay for a $200,000 study on the city of Spokane’s waste-to-energy plant. City officials have estimated the city will have to pay up to $8 million a year as a result of the cap-and-trade program. But city officials have argued that the incinerator is better for the environment than landfills. Spokane officials have pushed for the state to study the efficiency of its plant versus landfills, which are currently exempt from the cap-and-trade program.

Laurel Demkovich's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.