May 8, 2019

State lawmakers reflect on progress, cost of 2019 session

By: Andrew Lenderman   Comments: 0
State lawmakers discussed the state budget and more with Washington employers at AWB's Spring Meeting in Spokane Wednesday. Pictured from left, are moderator Paul Read of the Journal of Business; State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia; State Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland; State Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Republic; and State Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane. (Photo: Brian Mittge/AWB.)

SPOKANE -- There’s a lot to like in Washington’s new state budget, which tops a record $52 billion over the next two years: New investments in schools and special education. Forest restoration and mental health programs. And major support for higher education, including scholarships for 50,000 students that otherwise could not afford to go.

But state lawmakers differed sharply over for the cost of it all at a panel discussion Wednesday during AWB’s Spring Meeting in Spokane.

For State Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, this year’s legislative session was all about education.

“This is the first biennium that we fully paid for our McCleary investments and also did some additional investments in K-12, with special education in particular,” the Senate majority leader said. The McCleary legal case has required the Legislature to make additional, more equitable investments in schools across the state in recent years.

State Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, highlighted what he called a bipartisan, comprehensive and full-funded approach to addressing mental health as a positive from the most recent session that concluded April 28. He also highlighted a roughly 50 percent increased in special education spending, from $2 billion to $3 billion.

But this came at a high cost for the economy and the business community, he said. The last part of the session resulted in new taxes that will add up to more than $2 billion over the next two years and top $25 billion over the next 10 years.

“This is an enormous amount of money, Braun said. “This is an outright attack on our business community.”

He added that the Legislature made some good investments but could have done so without the taxes. New taxes include an increase to real estate excise taxes and the business and occupation tax paid by large financial institutions, for example.

State Rep. Larry Springer, D-Kirkland, also highlighted education in his remarks.

“That was what really drove this budget,” said Springer, the House Deputy Majority Leader. Lawmakers went into the session with more than $4 billion in new revenue, he said, and that was already earmarked.

“Every single dime of that additional revenue was committed to our K-12 system,” Springer said. “So yes, we had new revenue. No, we had no money after K-12 to spend a dime on anything else, like behavioral health, housing, orca recovery, mental health...because of the commitment we made to K-12 two years ago.”

State Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Republic, noted the state budget grew by 18 percent compared to the previous two-year budget cycle, and that the state may be due for a recession after many months of growth.

“Everybody hold onto your wallets because you’re about to pay more,” said Maycumber, the House Minority Floor Leader.

Braun also said he’s concerned about two very big deals as a result of the session, including undermining the best economy in the nation and having to turn off investments into good programs two years from now.

Lawmakers also discussed passage of a bill that would increase the taxing authority of local school districts, which critics fear will lead to a so-called McCleary 2.0 situation where wealthier school districts are able to raise more money for schools than others.

Billing noted that the Legislature allocates money to school districts, where local school boards must make financially responsible decisions when they craft budgets.

“I know that the budget we passed is responsible,” Billing said, citing the importance of investing in education and protecting natural resources.

“I think we’re better off as a state.”