Not long after our Legislature ended a marathon of sessions this month, there was a sense of relief that lawmakers would finally leave our Capitol. But some voters voiced frustration that it took lawmakers a record 176 days to call it good.
Gov. Jay Inslee is now taking a victory lap around the state, visiting editorial boards to point out — in his characteristically cheerful way — that this was a year of big progress despite deeply partisan differences that kept the Republican-led Senate and Democrat-led House at loggerheads for so long on a budget.
Only the threat of a government shutdown after July 1 seemed to nudge the parties to compromise.
But the broad strokes of Inslee’s story — that the Legislature finally managed many “bipartisan, bicameral” triumphs — are largely true. Seven years after the first cold blast of the Great Recession turned state budget surpluses into chasm-like shortfalls, the state is back to investing in its future and also mending its tattered social safety net.
The governor also took it on the chin. His vision to reform the tax code while positioning the state against climate change was thwarted. So was his effort to reform the handling of property crimes. Lawmakers also failed to lift the unequal burden of local school levies off local school districts.
But when it’s all said and done, state government policy is moving broadly in the direction the Democrat mapped before session. Overall, Democrats steered both the size of the state budget and what it spends money on.
Republicans can brag that they headed off nearly $1.4 billion in tax increases for schools and engineered the first cut in college tuition in state history.
The truth was that an improving state economy, and unexpected help from the federal government on child healthcare subsidies, closed most of the budget gap Inslee thought in December would require tax increases. In the end, Republicans went along with $180 million in new revenue from closing tax exemptions and other tax changes.
The final products are a $4.4 billion boost in state general-fund spending over the next two years and a $16 billion increase in transportation taxes over 16 years.
▪ K-12 schools get more than $2.8 billion in new funds, including $1.3 billion to address the McCleary court ruling, which said the state has violated its Constitution by failing to amply pay for basic education.
▪ There is a major investment in early childhood education, aimed at improving quality and expanding access. This could yield enormous benefits in future years as access to child care is expanded and its quality improved.
▪ On tuition, Republicans won a cut of 15 percent at the largest schools and 20 percent at regional schools, while Democrats got cuts for community colleges and stopped a cut in State Need Grants for low-income students.
▪ Tax reform failed, but an improving economy meant that tax hikes were mostly avoided. The amount of new revenue represented in the budget corresponds roughly to what Inslee initially proposed. Spending for the biennium goes up by about $4.4 billion or 13 percent.
That dollar increase over two years came despite many Republicans’ insistence before session that an expected $3 billion increase in revenues was enough to avoid tax increases.
▪ New state outlays include the first general wage adjustments since 2008 for public school employees and state workers and a $22.3 million boost in general fund investments in state parks operations.
▪ New money also pays for major upgrades to the mental health and foster care programs and 40 new Child Protective Services workers. The mental health system alone receives $95 million, some of it responding to adverse court rulings about the treatment of jailed offenders.
▪ A transportation tax package passed on bipartisan votes. The first seven cents of an 11.9 cent increase in the gas tax begins Saturday. The 16-year transportation package, which has shortcomings, moves the needle on projects the state needs.
Gas taxes pay for major projects around the state and in South Sound. These include an $861 million project to complete Spokane’s North-South Freeway and hundreds of millions more that will widen Interstate 5 at Joint Base Lewis McChord, add a new I-5 interchange at Marvin Road in Lacey and complete the freight corridor linking state Route 167 and the Port of Tacoma.
Republicans won reforms to streamline projects, and they included unfortunate language to defund many transit and trail projects if Inslee tries to write rules requiring cleaner fuel mixes for vehicles as part of his climate agenda.
In the end, the state’s going to be in better shape than it has been. Inslee earned a victory lap, but he needs to stay both upbeat and aggressive in pursuing the goals he didn’t achieve in the last session — tax reform and real action on climate change. Both are urgently needed.