House budget focuses on schools, tax loopholes

The Associated PressFebruary 27, 2014 

House Democrats on Wednesday unveiled a supplemental budget package that seeks to restore cost-of-living increases for teachers and puts additional money into education, while closing four tax exemptions, including one that grants a sales tax break to some out-of-state shoppers.

The more than $200 million proposal was released in two pieces. The underlying $173 million budget has $60 million for books, technology and supplies in K-12 classrooms, and $10 million to improve community mental health services, including $8.2 million in response to a settlement that requires the state to expand mental health services for children.

The supplemental budget makes adjustments to the $33.6 billion, two-year state operating budget approved by the Legislature last year.

“It’s a modest budget,” said Rep. Ross Hunter, the main budget writer for House Democrats.

But separate legislation also announced Wednesday seeks to spend about $51 million to restore teachers’ voter-approved cost-of-living raises, which have been suspended for the last few budget cycles, and also looks to spend an additional $16.5 million on early learning programs. Though not listed in the spending plan, Hunter said that those measures will be part of the budget that is expected to be passed by the House next week.

The additional spending would be paid for, in part, by $100 million that the state would gain by closing four tax exemptions, including those on out-of-state sales, on timber product waste claimed by oil refineries and on bottled water.

Majority Leader Pat Sullivan said that with the state Supreme Court’s latest order telling lawmakers to submit a complete plan by the end of April detailing how the state will fully pay for basic education, “ it really changed the way we moved forward.”

“That court order said we needed to make additional progress,” he said.

In 2012, the high court ruled that the state is not meeting its constitutional obligation concerning education funding. That ruling was the result of a lawsuit brought by a coalition of school districts, parents and education groups, known as the McCleary case for the family named in the suit. The court has required yearly progress reports from the Legislature on its efforts. Those reports are then critiqued by the group that brought the lawsuit and by the Supreme Court.

When asked about the challenges of closing tax exemptions with just a few weeks left in the legislative session, Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said that “at the end of the day we have no choice but to acknowledge that we live in a post-McCleary era.”

“The old fashioned stereotypes and cliches of yesterday about more and more and more tax preferences versus getting smarter and rigorous and investing in early learning, those days are over,” he said.

The proposal comes just days after the Majority Coalition Caucus in the Senate proposed a supplementary budget that looks to put additional money into education, but also would create or expand several tax exemptions.

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, who is the key Senate budget writer, said that both the House and Senate budget proposals prioritize education. He said that while the discussion on tax exemptions and cost-of-living raises may be difficult with only a few weeks left in the session, on the underlying supplemental budget, “we’re not that far off.”

The House and Senate also differ on mental health funding. All of the Legislature’s spending plans to date put new money into mental health programs, but the House suggests roughly double what the Senate proposed.

Both House and Senate would pay to settle a lawsuit over children’s mental health. Both would cover overtime costs at Western and Eastern state hospitals while also upgrading the hospitals. And both would add beds at a time of severe shortages. But the House plan would add more.

A bipartisan House construction proposal calls for building the space needed for 48 beds, split between King County, Thurston and Mason counties, and seven Eastern Washington counties. Each of those three regions would get money for either one 16-bed free-standing treatment facility or space at local hospitals.

House Democrats budgeted money to operate those facilities. The Senate’s bipartisan plan provides money to run 16 beds somewhere in the state this year, and 16 more in the long run.

Besides beds, the House plans would issue competitive grants to build facilities around the state, while also earmarking some money for particular outpatient services in designated places.

Pierce County would be partially funded for a program to send teams to patients’ homes around the clock.

Staff writer Jordan Schrader contributed to this report.

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