Education, mental health among upcoming budget challenges in Olympia – The Spokesman Review
OLYMPIA – An optimist in the Washington state capital these days is someone who thinks the Legislature will pass a budget for $36 billion or more in spending, address problems in education, mental health and other major concerns, and go home in the 105 days set aside for the session in the constitution.
Officially, many of the state’s leaders were optimists last week. Unofficially, many have made plans to be here much longer.
The source of that pessimism is the state’s two-year operating budget, which must be approved before the Legislature adjourns, and at least by June 30, the end of the state’s fiscal year. After a series of budget cycles when the state’s financial picture could be described as bleak, the outlook for 2015-17 is practically rosy. A slow but steady economic recovery is expected to add about $3 billion to the $34 billion collected and mostly spent in the current cycle.
But demands on that money could quickly outstrip the extra supply. The state is under court orders to reverse some of the cuts it made during the recession to public schools and the mental health system. Legislators also have to wrestle with fiscal and social challenges handed them by voters.
Here are some of the knottiest problems they face:
The Washington Supreme Court ruled two years ago the state is not living up to its top duty set aside in the constitution – the education of its children. The Legislature had passed laws that did a good job of describing what schools should offer, the court said; it was doing a bad job of paying for those things.
In the landmark McCleary decision, the court gave the Legislature until 2018 to come up with the money, estimated to be as much as $4 billion, and the Legislature made a down payment of nearly $1 billion in 2013. Days before legislators returned last year, the court said it wanted a plan for getting the rest of the way to what’s described as “full funding.” Legislators couldn’t agree on a plan and sent the court a report that tried to explain why they couldn’t reach agreement. Unimpressed with what was essentially a recitation of failure mixed with a civics lesson on the separation of powers, the court found them in contempt.
Punishment for that contempt was put on hold until the end of the 2015 session. The court listed a series of possible penalties it could impose if the Legislature fails again to file an adequate report, including the prospect of the justices taking over the budgeting process. The ultimate penalty remains unknown.
At a minimum, legislators are expected to add about $750 million to the budget for maintenance, operating costs and supplies students need but most local school districts currently cover, everything from books to computers and lab equipment.
Beyond that, there may be spirited debates on cost-of-living raises for teachers and other school employees, which voters have approved but legislators have suspended most years, and money to hire more teachers and reduce class sizes in kindergarten through Grade 3. Hanging over the education debates is Initiative 1351, approved by voters last year, which calls for reductions in class sizes for all grades but provides no extra money to make that happen.
Mental health care
A separate mandate from the courts involves a lack of facilities to treat mental health patients. The shortage became so acute in the past decade that mental health patients who were taken to hospitals because of injuries could not be transferred to mental health facilities; some were handcuffed to beds in hospital hallways until a space opened up. Legislative leaders from both parties call improvements to the mental health system a top priority; they’ll have to reach agreement on how much more to spend and how to get more facilities for patients.
Gov. Jay Inslee is proposing a tax on carbon emissions as a way to make polluters pay for fouling the air. Republicans say such a tax will fall on consumers, who will pay more for certain products, like gasoline. The state is also under federal pressure to update its water quality standards and one of its key measurements, the level of cancer-causing substances that are found in fish and other seafood.
Inslee wants to give the state more authority to keep certain toxic substances out of lakes, streams and rivers, arguing that’s cheaper than trying to remove them once they get in. He could face a fight from Republicans who worry about giving the Department of Ecology too much power over businesses.
The number of recreational marijuana businesses grows in the state almost every week, but some legislators want to rein in the separate medical marijuana system, which, unlike recreational pot, is largely unregulated, taxed less and usually much cheaper. Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson of Maury Island called the current situation “the wild, wild west out there.”
Early proposals include licensing of medical dispensaries, controls on the chemicals that can be used on the plants and a state registry that would exempt patients from some taxes that would be imposed. Cities and counties also are clamoring for some of the tax money the state collects on marijuana, saying they are the ones that deal with the consequences. Inslee isn’t backing any one proposal yet, but said he wants a “legally sanctioned and safer system” for medical marijuana.
For the past two years, the Legislature tried to come up with a package of big road and bridge projects to build or finish, extra maintenance to perform, and perhaps extra money for mass transit and the state’s ferry system. The House passed a plan but the Senate could not, partly because any such plan would require more taxes and fees and partly because one of the bridge projects, a new span for the Columbia River between Vancouver and Portland, was too controversial. Legislators will try again this year for a package, which likely would have more money for the North Spokane Corridor, although a hang-up could be whether it has enough to finish that long-running project. Spokane legislators also will be pushing for other local projects, including the widening of state Route 904 in Cheney, that are not in Inslee’s current package.
Inslee’s budget has no extra money for medical education in Spokane, either the $8 million the University of Washington seeks to grow its current program or the $2.5 million Washington State University wants to get started on its plans for a separate medical school. Spokane legislators will push to allocate money to the two universities’ budgets, although they don’t all agree on how much for each program. University officials will make their case throughout the session, but most legislators believe it will be among the last items resolved in budget negotiations.
Washington’s 105-day legislative session starts at noon Monday. Gov. Jay Inslee delivers the annual “state of the state” address Tuesday.