Editorial: Capital budget failure mars lawmakers’ busy year

By The Herald Editorial Board

Having run out the clock three times on one 105-day regular session and three 30-day special sessions for a record 193-day total, one would expect that the state Legislature got a few things done this year.

In all seriousness, state lawmakers accomplished a great deal this year and had to do so through bipartisan agreement. With a divided Legislature — Republicans controlling the Senate and Democrats holding the majority in the House — nothing would have passed without general agreement and compromise among lawmakers in both parties.

And that divided government is often a good thing, says Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, the House minority leader. Kristiansen, in a recent meeting with the editorial board and other House Republicans from Snohomish and Island county districts, noted that with leadership split between the parties, legislation requires bipartisan work; and what passes is better law because of it.

With each party checking the other’s power, he said, there is a better chance to adequately vet laws to avoid unintended consequences and assure balanced laws that better represent the public’s desires.

He’s correct, though the Legislature also demonstrated the disadvantages that can be caused by that split:

The time it took to pass an operating budget and agree to a K-12 funding solution to the state Supreme Court’s McCleary mandate — negotiations that took the budget within hours of forcing a partial state government shutdown — permitted lawmakers and the public only a few hours to review significant changes to the state’s tax system;

Failure to resolve a water rights issue, stemming from the Supreme Court’s Hirst decision that has halted home-building on some rural land where wells can’t be drilled; which led to:

The Legislature’s inability to pass a $4 billion capital budget, which provides funding for construction of schools, community centers, parks and other public works projects, because Senate Republicans refused to move on the capital budget until they have secured a permanent fix to Hirst.

With those exceptions noted, the Legislature accomplished much that’s worth noting, including:

It significantly increased funding for K-12 education — allocating $7.3 billion more to be spent over the next four years — and changed the state tax system to end the state’s past reliance on local school levies to pay for a significant share of teacher salaries and other expenses of basic education.

A few caveats here: School districts still are trying to determine what this means for their share of local levies. The state Supreme Court has yet to weigh in on how well the solution addresses its concerns. And a lack of a capital budget has frozen about $1 billion that was to go to school construction.

The $43.7 billion operating budget for 2017-19, along with the K-12 enhancements, increased funding for the state’s mental health system, including $60 million for more staffing and quality of care at state hospitals and funding for more community treatment beds, walk-in clinics and an increase in Medicaid rates paid to behavioral health agencies; $13 million for foster care and adoption support programs; $6 million to launch the new Department of Children, Youth and Families; expanded funding for early childhood education; funds for higher education grants and scholarships, medical education programs at the University of Washington and Washington State University and expansion of STEM enrollments at UW and the state’s community and technical colleges; and raises for most state employees, including Washington State Patrol troopers.

Senate Bill 5975, which established paid family and medical leave, which provides up to 12 weeks of paid leave to care for a new child or ill family member, with employees and employers contributing to the program.

Senate Bill 5289, which changed the state’s distracted driving law to bar the holding and most uses of a phone while driving.

Senate Bill 5835, which requires employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant women regarding restroom breaks, food and drink policies, schedules, limits on standing and lifting and other needs.

Senate Bill 5037, which makes a fourth offense for driving under the influence of intoxicants a felony.

Senate Bill 5252, which extended a $58 document recording fee for real estate and related documents to fund programs for affordable housing, housing assistance and homelessness.

House Bill 1501, which provides for enforcement of the state’s firearms background check law and requires dealers to report to law enforcement when someone barred from owning a firearm attempts to purchase one. It also requires law enforcement to notify victims when someone barred from gun ownership attempts to purchase a firearm.

House Bill 1109, which creates a pilot project to fund multi-agency law enforcement teams to conduct cold case investigations tied to a backlog of sexual assault “rape kits.”

House Bill 2224, which delays when an assessment for science is adopted as a high school graduation requirement and provides for an appeals process and other changes to the state’s graduation requirements for math and English language assessments.

House Bill 1489, which requires the state Department of Natural Resources to enter into wildfire suppression agreements with local contractors and private property owners, to make better use of local resources to fight wildfires.

But more help would have been provided had the Senate passed $15 million in the capital budget for thinning and clearing of brush and diseased and dead timber.

That’s a sample of what was accomplished, bills that often passed both House and Senate with significant bipartisan support and represent improvements that will benefit the state and its residents.

Still, the year’s record remains marred by lawmakers’ inability to reach agreement on some way forward on the water rights issue and the passage of a capital budget that residents in all 39 of the state’s counties would benefit from.

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