Lawmakers pass budget, little else, as session ends

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers concluded their 2014 session Thursday after a marathon final day highlighted by passage of a revised state budget, a break on college tuition for veterans and extension of a fee used to fund homeless assistance program.

But legislators adjourned the 60-daay session shortly before midnight without agreeing on changes to the teacher evaluation program considered necessary to retain a federal education waiver and merging the medical and recreational marijuana markets.

“I think we had some missed opportunities but it’s a short session. You don’t usually get much out of the short session,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

On the last day, a revised state budget won support in the House and Senate on overwhelming bipartisan majorities.

It puts another $58 million into elementary and secondary schools to pay for supplies and operating costs. It also freezes college tuition for a second straight year and does not raise taxes.

It adds $20.3 million for community mental health programs and $5.2 million for helping foster children find permanent homes and funds wage hikes for child care workers and rate increases for family home providers.

Overall, the budget will add $155 million in spending to the $33.6 billion, two-year state operating budget approved by the Legislature last year.

But it does not eliminate tax breaks or provide teachers with a state-funded pay hike sought by Democratic lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.

“Things that are not agreed to by both sides are not in this budget,” explained Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

Also Thursday, the House gave final approval to a bill allowing active military personnel and veterans to pay the lower in-state rate for college tuition regardless of how long they live in Washington. Existing law requires students live in the state for a year to establish residency before they are eligible to pay the lower rate.

Entering the day, every lawmaker in both chambers had voted for the bill at least once in the last two years yet it had failed to make it out of the Legislature. This year the House and Senate each approved a version of the bill and leaders of the chambers negotiated which would be enacted into law.

In the end, they chose the one authored by Sen. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor.

“This has been a long time coming for our veterans. We have been able to put politics aside and focus on good policy to give veterans the support in accessing higher education they need and deserve,” she said.

Lawmakers also agreed to a four-year extension of a $40 real estate document recording fee that funds homeless assistance programs. The fee was to be phased out beginning July 1, 2015.

Democrats wanted to make the fee permanent but the Republican-dominated Senate Majority Coalition Caucus resisted. The GOP agreed on the extension in exchange for a change that will ensure some of the money goes directly to private landlords rather than funneled to them through a nonprofit or government entity.

The final day successes may, in the long run be overshadowed by some of what did not get done this year.

Efforts to boost the minimum wage, eliminate tax breaks, provide teachers a pay hike and reforming workers compensation came up short.

A multi-billion dollar transportation spending proposal – their most anticipated undertaking when the session began in January – never came up for a vote triggering a blame game between Republicans on one side and Democrats, including Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, on the other.

Also, for the first time in years, a capital budget did not get passed, a victim of the power struggle between leaders of the Democratic-controlled House and Republican-run Senate Majority Coalition.

And defeat of a bill changing the state’s teacher evaluation program to satisfy federal education officials could mean millions of federal dollars will be diverted from classrooms and hundreds of schools labeled as failing by the United State Department of Education.

While Inslee pushed for the change, most Democrats and many conservative Republican lawmakers opposed the revision. So too did the powerful statewide teachers union which had members meeting with House and Senate nearly every day.

“We’re projecting in the next couple weeks teachers are going to get beat up over this,” said Jared Kink, president of the Everett Education Association, who was in Olympia Thursday.

Legislation merging the medical and recreational marijuana markets failed to pass in spite of last minute lobbying efforts by Inslee.

Inslee, speaking to reports after lawmakers adjourned, said there were some “big wins” in the short session and “a lot left to be done” especially on transportation.

Without additional revenue from a package, the Department of Transportation “is going to have to do triage on what they can do,” he said. He said he expects reductions in ferry and bus service and reduced maintenance on highways as a result.

Inslee blamed the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus for the failure, suggesting they kept coming up with reasons not to reach agreement.

“If excuses were money, the Majority Coalition would be multimillionaires,” he said.

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

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