Politics & Government

Legislature adjourns with budget that increases spending by $191 million

Lawmakers in the House watch the vote board during one of 27 votes to override gubernatorial vetoes, Tuesday, March 29, 2016, in Olympia, Wash. The last time the Legislature overrode a veto was in 1998.
Lawmakers in the House watch the vote board during one of 27 votes to override gubernatorial vetoes, Tuesday, March 29, 2016, in Olympia, Wash. The last time the Legislature overrode a veto was in 1998. AP

Washington state lawmakers adjourned late Tuesday after passing a 2016 supplemental budget, following 20 days in overtime struggling to reach an agreement.

The compromise budget approved Tuesday boosts staffing at Western State Hospital in Lakewood and covers the costs of fighting last year’s wildfires.

It leaves significant work for next year to fully fund Washington’s public schools and fix how the state pays for teachers.

Earlier this month, Gov. Jay Inslee vetoed 27 bills the Legislature approved after lawmakers failed to come up with a budget on time, something Inslee said should have been their top priority. Lawmakers began a 30-day special session March 10 to finish their work.

On Tuesday, the state House approved the supplemental operating budget on a vote of 78-17. A little before 7 p.m., the Senate passed the plan 27-17, sending it to Inslee and paving the way for the Legislature’s adjournment at about 11 p.m.

The supplemental budget approved Tuesday adds $191 million in spending to the two-year, $38.2 billion budget lawmakers approved in 2015.

The spending level reflects a compromise between the $467 million spending increase originally proposed by House Democrats and the $49 million Senate Republicans wanted.

The budget includes $28 million in assistance for Washington’s mental health hospitals, as well as about $15 million geared toward combating homelessness throughout the state.

The plan also will pull $190 million from the state’s rainy day fund to cover wildfire-fighting costs racked up in 2015.

Republican lawmakers who control the Senate praised the budget for not dramatically increasing taxes and spending, while Democrats said they are happy with the money it puts toward helping the homeless and recruiting new teachers.

Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said keeping a healthy reserve in the state’s general and the rainy day funds will help lawmakers address court-ordered school funding obligations next year.

The state is in contempt of court for failing to submit a plan to fully fund public schools by 2018. Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a plan that pledges to study the issue further and resolve remaining problems in 2017.

The fix will involve ending the use of local school district property tax levies to pay school employees — a thorny problem that could require new spending and tax adjustments.

“Had we squandered our rainy day fund this year, and had we embarked on unsustainable spending, it would be terribly difficult next year,” Schoesler said. “But because we were responsible this year, we have a very good chance of getting that done next session.”

Other parts of the budget would spend about $30 million on overtime for home health care providers, as well as $8 million to back fill costs of last year’s cut in tuition at state colleges and universities.

About $18 million would maintain funding for the state need grant, a financial aid program for college students.

Democrats said they would have liked to do more to address a statewide teacher shortage, including giving raises to beginning teachers, which their budget originally proposed.

The raises — which would have cost about $56 million — weren’t included in the final agreement.

The budget does include about $7 million to help recruit and retain K-12 school employees, about half of which would go toward mentoring programs for beginning teachers.

“We didn’t address the teacher shortage as much as we would have liked to, but it’s a step forward in a supplemental year,” said state Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, the chief budget writer in the House.

Helping balance the budget is about $46 million in taxes that national companies are expected to pay on royalties.

The companies haven’t paid those taxes in recent years, but as part of the budget deal, the state Department of Revenue would waive penalties for nonpayment if the companies pay some of the taxes owed.

“You don’t just get to not pay your taxes in our state,” said Rep. Kris Lytton, D-Anacortes and chairwoman of the House Finance Committee. “That is a responsibility that we all owe.”

“Certain sectors should not be exempt from that.”

Other tax measures previously proposed by House Democrats, such as rolling back sales tax exemptions on bottled water and for out-of-state shoppers, weren’t included in the final budget deal.

Another issue lawmakers didn’t resolve is an upcoming reduction in tax authority for local school districts.

Six years ago, the Legislature temporarily increased the amount of money school districts could collect from local property tax levies, a move designed to help the districts weather the economic recession.

That increase in the levy lid is set to expire in January 2018, causing school district officials to seek an extension.

Some lawmakers argued that school district officials won’t need the increased levy authority if the Legislature meets its obligations to fully fund public schools before 2018.

The compromise budget says the Legislature will revisit the issue next April, if lawmakers determine they aren’t on track to fully fund public schools by April 30.

“We have got to be committed to the solution,” said state Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, who called the plan a “well-worked compromise.”

Other lawmakers said school districts need more certainty than the budget provides. State Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, said many school districts will have to plan for layoffs and budget cuts without the extension of the levy cliff.

“This is a devastating blow to school districts throughout our entire state,” he said. “What we’re doing is we’re making the next 12 months completely miserable for school districts.”

Also Tuesday, the House voted to override Inslee’s vetoes on the 27 bills from earlier this month. The Senate voted on the veto overrides, which require a two-thirds majority vote, a day earlier.

The votes mark the first time the Washington Legislature has overridden a gubernatorial veto since 1998.

The bills – which concern topics ranging from the refrigeration of noodles to the growing of industrial hemp – now become law as if the governor had never vetoed them.

Inslee said Tuesday he has no objection to the vetoed bills becoming law now that lawmakers have approved a budget, as his goal was to “focus the legislators’ attention on getting this job done.”

Inslee said he wished the budget had included funding for teacher raises, which he and House Democrats had proposed. Yet the governor said he was pleased the Legislature approved a task force to work on McCleary school-funding issues between now and next year.

He said “some heavy lifting” awaits the Legislature when it returns in January, and lawmakers need to be ready to get to work “on day one.”

“The decisions that were made this session frankly are minor league compared to the major league decisions that will have to be made in the 2017 session,” Inslee said.

“We’re going to have to move much more rapidly to get this job done in 2017.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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