Two-year budget adds to education without raising taxes

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee signed a budget bill Friday that, for a change, had no tax increases, deep cuts in spending or elimination of tax breaks.

The legislation, which enjoyed overwhelming support in the House and Senate, will add about $155 million in new spending to the two-year state operating budget approved last year.

It puts $58 million more into basic education of public school students, freezes college tuition for a second straight year and pumps $30 million into scholarship programs.

There’s an infusion of $20.3 million for community mental health programs and money to give thousands of child care workers a raise.

Though the budget is balanced and has an ample reserve for rainy days, the spending bill didn’t inject as much money into public schools as the governor desired and the Supreme Court is demanding.

He said lawmakers needed to make more progress toward complying with the court’s McCleary decision requiring the state to fully fund basic education for elementary and secondary students.

Now the Legislature will need to come up with at least $1.5 billion more for public schools in the next budget to stay on course with meeting the court’s 2018 deadline for compliance.

“It’s going to take some very, very difficult work,” he said.

Also absent from the budget bill was money to provide teachers a cost-of-living increase or its workers a pay raise — which Inslee and most Democrats in the House and Senate wanted.

Those too are going to need to be addressed next year, he said.

“Some people have characterized the budget as sustainable. But the state’s fiscal situation is not as rosy as that outlook suggests,” he said. “We have a huge budget problem to address next session.”

The chief Republican budget writer in the Senate agreed there are “challenges going forward.”

But state Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, said the governor complicated matters by vetoing a proviso in the budget to transfer $20 million into the public schools account from the Life Sciences Discovery Fund.

Shifting those dollars would have helped deal with the McCleary obligation, said Hill, who is chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Moreover, he said, the veto won’t sit well with some lawmakers who know the difficult negotiations to strike a deal with the House that wound up winning the support of 48 of the 49 senators.

“We gave him everything he asked for and he came back and dropped this bomb on us,” Hill said of the governor.

It may make chilly relations with the Republican-controlled Senate Majority Coalition caucus a little chillier when it comes to budget negotiations next year.

“It is going to be hard to do our work next year,” Hill said. “We’ll always be looking over our shoulder.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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