A legislative fight over using the state’s rainy day fund to pay for last summer’s emergency firefighting costs is a waste of time. But Gov. Jay Inslee and the Democrat-controlled state House find themselves once again pitted against a Republican-controlled Senate in a disagreement more distracting than it needs to be.
The Senate is refusing to dip into the emergency fund to cover firefighting costs that exceeded budgets by some $140 million. Its supplemental budget proposal uses other questionable cuts to cover costs.
Last year, lawmakers in both parties created at least part of this problem by failing to adequately fund the firefighters requested by state Lands Commissioner Peter Goldmark. That lack of foresight made this year’s problem bigger. The 2015 fire season was the worst in state history, eclipsing a record set the previous year.
With barely more than a week left in the 60-day session, it now makes sense for the House and Senate to look for common ground on supplemental budgets that the majority caucuses in each chamber made public last week. Both proposals have new funds to deal with the state’s other major emergency, the frayed mental health system, which is under federal court orders to improve.
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The Republican Senate and Democratic House have differences over whether to use psychiatric nurses to fill in gaps at Western State Hospital or insist on using psychiatrists. We think Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, has a good idea for using nurses to expand staffing at a time recruitment of psychiatrists is difficult.
Even in an election year, lawmakers’ other budget differences should not be so great as to force a special session.
The Democrats want to give teachers a small cost-of-living pay adjustment, including Inslee’s plan to lift starting-teacher pay to $40,000. They want to pay for that by closing a tax exemption for purchases of bottled water, limiting tax exemptions for out-of-state-shoppers and sales of foreclosed properties, and ending preferential business tax rates for travel agents, international investment services and resellers of prescription drugs.
Republicans oppose the pay and tax changes, but want to reinvest funds in charter schools after a court struck down the state charters law. House Democrats save several million dollars by not funding charters.
There may be room for both solutions, if the GOP can get off its no new revenue horse.
Because of its reluctance to tap emergency funds or close tax exemptions, the Senate is scratching under the cushions for extra money to cover the fire and mental health costs.
One GOP proposal that sounds interesting is from Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia. He wants to combine two of the oldest state pension funds that were closed to new members in 1977 — one of which serves police and firefighters and has a surplus, and one which serves K-12 teachers and has a multibillion-dollar deficit.
Braun thinks the pension merger could save the state $75 million in the current budget cycle and about $2 billion over a decade, lowering costs for the state, schools, cities and fire districts.
This idea may be worth pursuing but needs much more discussion. It unfortunately was brought up very late in the game. A legislative study could at least verify whether that the financial benefits Braun touts can come true without injuring the benefits of retirees.
Indeed, a merger could be the only realistic way that retirees in the Teachers Retirement System 1 ever see meaningful cost-of-living adjustments again.
Session ends March 10. The time to compromise is here.