Cherry blossoms bloom in April at the Washington State Capitol. Photo by Emma Epperly, WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Cherry blossoms bloom in April at the Washington State Capitol. Photo by Emma Epperly, WNPA Olympia News Bureau

Legislature adjourns on time with new budget, more money for education

Total spending is $52.4 billion; includes levy lid lift for school districts and some tax increases.

OLYMPIA —The Washington State Legislature adjourned minutes before its midnight deadline April 28, ending its 105-day session on time for the first time since 2009.

Before the $52.4 billion biennium operating budget saw final passage, lawmakers worked out a deal that includes a school levy lid lift and prohibiting public records requests on the bump stock buyback plan.

“This truly has been an epic legislative session of unprecedented scope and dimension of achievements for the people in the state of Washington,” said Gov. Jay Inslee at a press conference just after midnight.

The House passed the operating budget in a 57-41 party line vote at about 11:45 p.m. The Senate had already passed the operating budget in a partisan 27-21 vote with less than an hour before cutoff time. Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, was the only Democrat to vote against the operating budget.

“We are building a really solid foundation for the young people of our state, for the working people of our state, for the companies and businesses of this state and for the future of this state with this budget,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Kitsap County, who is the Democratic budget lead and chair of the Ways and Means Committee.

This budget “represents the values of the entire state,” Rolfes said.

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the Senate Republican budget lead, urged members vote against the budget because of the tax increases. However, Braun touted the bipartisan work on behavioral health and special education as successes of the budget: “Just because we are not perfect does not mean we should not be proud of the progress we’ve made in doing the right thing for our children.”

House Minority Floor Leader Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Republic, also opposed the operating budget, saying it was “Puget Sound-centric.”

“This budget was developed in the dark of the night on the 104th day without transparency,” Maycumber said.

House Republican budget lead Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, agreed: “Here we are rushing through this budget about 20 minutes before we would have to go into special session.”

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, touted investments in education and behavioral health as strong points of the budget.

The House and Senate announced a budget deal Thursday evening and released the full conference committee report Friday, which cements the operating budget in a non-amendable form with total spending at $52.4 billion.

The issue holding up both chambers until the last hour was school levy lid lifts, which school districts across the state have requested the Legislature raise to save them from potential layoffs. The levy lid lift came in the form of Senate Bill 5313 that allows a district to levy $2.50 per $1,000 of assessed property value or $2,500 per student in districts with fewer than 40,000 full-time students, and raises that number to $3,000 per student in districts with more than 40,000 full-time students. The legislation also includes accountability measures for school districts in how they use these enrichment levy funds.

Chair of the Senate K-12 Education Committee Sen. Lisa Wellman, D-Mercer Island, said the levy change “responds to the needs of both our largest school districts as well as our small school districts.”

In the 2019-21 operating budget, total spending of $52.4 billion includes a $7.8 billion spending increase over the biennium. The major funding areas are K-12 education with $4.5 billion, up by approximately 60 percent. Special education funding comprises a large part of that increase at $936 million along with funding formula changes that will give more money to schools that use integrated education programs.

Higher education also received huge increases in funding with a Workforce Education B&O revenue increase passed separately from the budget, bringing in $62.2 million. The State Need Grant and Washington College Grant programs will receive $17 million.

One of the largest bipartisan focuses throughout the session has been on behavioral health. The nearly $172 million budgeted for behavioral health will move more services and beds into communities.

The policy to end the sexual assault kit backlog has already been signed into law and is fully funded in the budget at $10.3 million.

Housing assistance for the homeless will receive $41.3 million for a variety of programs addressing different homeless populations.

The Commissioner of Public Lands’ requests for wildfire prevention and forest health were fully met at $25.6 million. Orca whale protections will receive $18.7 million to tackle most of the governor’s Orca Task Force recommendations.

To fund the $7.8 billion in spending increases, new sources of revenue were approved, such as targeted tax increases.

The budget requires increases in revenue that will largely come from a graduated Real Estate Excise Tax, estimated to raise $244 million. The current state rate is a flat 1.28 percent. The graduated version reduces the rate for sales under $500,000 and keeps the rate the same for the portion of the selling price over $500,000. The rate will go up for the portion of the selling price over $1.5 million to 2.75 percent and then to 3 percent for the portion of the selling price over $3 million.

Also included is legislation that nearly doubles the Business and Occupation (B&O) tax on a small group of businesses on financial institutions with annual profits over $1 billion. The increase is expected to bring in an estimated $133 million over the next biennium.

“This is a bill that has virtually no vetting whatsoever,” said Braun, the Senate Republican budget leader. The bill was introduced Friday and passed through committees quickly, passing the House the same day it was heard in committee. It passed the Legislature on Sunday in a partisan vote.

There is a tax relief plan for low-income senior citizens and veterans with disabilities when it comes to property taxes. The new income guidelines are based on the median household income in the county where the beneficiary lives.

A workforce education investment program that would include college grants was funded separately from the budget with an increase in B&O tax on certain businesses. The tax will raise $393 million over the biennium.

Legislators celebrated at a press conference after the sine die festivities along with Gov. Inslee.

“I just have to note we’re doing some good things in early childhood education and on the other end a way to leave a soft footprint as we exit this world… We’re taking care from birth to composting. It’s been a great session,” said Gov. Inslee.

Emma Epperly is an intern with the WNPA Olympia News Bureau.

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