People gather at the sundial in front of the Legislative Building (left) in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

People gather at the sundial in front of the Legislative Building (left) in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

State Democrats propose increased spending on homelessness

On Monday, House and Senate leaders unveiled supplemental spending plans for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

OLYMPIA — At the start of the 60-day legislative session last month, lawmakers in both parties said homelessness needed to be a focus in the supplemental budget.

On Monday, House and Senate Democrats unveiled plans that would increase state spending to address affordable housing and homelessness programs throughout the middle of next year.

The House has allocated about $235 million in new spending on homelessness through mid-2021, and the Senate has proposed $140 million in new spending on the issue in that time frame. The money would be spread among a variety of initiatives, including increasing shelter capacity, funding construction projects addressing affordable housing, and creating a pilot program for low-income elderly or disabled adults living in certain counties. Spending would also be used to help those at risk of becoming homeless.

“Homelessness is a chronic issue all up and down the West Coast as housing prices continue to increase,” said Rep. June Robinson, D-Everett, vice chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee. “This will make a difference in local communities.”

About 10,000 people in the state are without shelter, and more than 11,000 live in temporary homeless housing, according to the most recent annual report from the state Department of Commerce.

The plans released Monday also look to increase spending in other areas, including special education, health care and state responses to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Both budgets also allocate $5 million toward the state’s coronavirus response, with the Senate proposal including the establishment of a dedicated call center and the monitoring of known cases within the state.

The budget proposals come less than a week after lawmakers received an updated revenue forecast that showed state revenues are expected to increase by about $606 million more than expected through the middle of the current two-year budget cycle that ends mid-2021.

The Senate’s $53.6 billion plan has nearly $1 billion in new spending, while the the $53.7 billion House plan has $1.2 billion in new spending. One tax break included in the Senate plan would exempt menstrual products like tampons from sales tax, something more than a dozen states have already done.

Democratic Sen. Christine Rolfes, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said the feminine hygiene tax exemption is something “whose day seems to have come.”

“There’s a lot of momentum for it, a lot of support,” she said.

Republicans in the House and Senate criticized the proposals, arguing that the influx of revenue in the latest forecast should have translated to more tax breaks.

Republican Rep. Drew Stokesbary said “the majority’s budget makes it increasingly likely that new taxes will be necessary next year to support this additional spending.”

Sen. John Braun, the budget leader for Senate Republicans, said that while there are good things in the Senate plan, focusing on funding of homelessness programs without accompanying accountability or public safety elements was a “one-dimensional approach.”

Both plans were to receive public hearings before fiscal committees on Monday, with the Senate proposal expected to be voted on by the full chamber Thursday and the House plan set to receive a floor vote Friday. Then both chambers will begin negotiations to reach a final compromise plan before the legislative session ends March 12.

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