Politics & Government

Legislature passes funding for construction projects, but meltdown puts it in doubt

State lawmakers agreed Tuesday to spend $200 million to build roughly 500 classrooms for kindergarten through third grade.

But the spending remains up in the air because of a meltdown in the Senate over demands to reduce class size in higher grades.

The classroom construction is part of a capital budget that the House passed on a 96-2 vote and the Senate by 44-1. Gov. Jay Inslee signed the measure along with an operating budget shortly before midnight, averting a partial government shutdown.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, said the classrooms make sure “if we hire new teachers we don’t have to put them in a visqueen tent.”

Lowering class size in grades K-3 is part of the Legislature’s plan to respond to a state Supreme Court mandate to fully fund education. Lawmakers included money to hire new teachers in the operating budget.

“We’re spending nearly $400 million this year to reduce class sizes in grades K-3, where studies show smaller classes do the most good,” Sen. Bruce Dammeier, R-Puyallup, said in a statement. “But we can’t get smaller class sizes for our kids unless we have more classrooms in which to put them.”

Senate Democrats refused to give their votes to help suspend Initiative 1351, which voters passed in November to reduce class size in all grades. That created a hole in the brand-new two-year operating budget, which like all of the competing budget plans this year did not pay for the $2 billion initiative.

Senate Republicans said the unbalanced budget threatened the state’s ability to borrow new money. Republicans said that’s why they didn’t bring forward a bill needed to authorize the state to borrow more than $2.2 billion to help fund the $3.9 billion capital plan.

Senate Democrats said the bond bill shouldn’t be held up over the dispute.

Both Dammeier and Dunshee said they believe the Legislature will come to an agreement that will allow the bond measure and transportation measures that are also hung up to move forward.

The state’s regular stream of money for school construction is also part of the capital budget and also in doubt.

The capital budget pays for construction projects, grants and other one-time spending over the next two years.

It would spend $32 million on beds at hospitals and local facilities as the state tries to keep patients with mental illness from languishing in emergency rooms.

“This is one of the best mental-health budgets we’ve seen out of the capital budget since I’ve been here,” Rep. Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, told fellow House members.

The plan would have the state design a new prison focused on inmates with mental illnesses, helping deal with a space crunch.

It could take years to turn the former Maple Lane juvenile detention center in Grand Mound into such a prison. In the meantime, the capital budget allows the facility to be used for mental evaluations or treatment of accused criminals to address a federal court mandate to reduce waiting times on those services.

The capital budget would renovate a building to house classrooms and labs at the University of Washington Tacoma for engineering and science classes.

And it would move forward on a contentious $82 million project to construct a state office building on Olympia’s Capitol Way South just north of the Capitol Campus. Senate Republicans have been wary of the cost. Most of the building was intended to house the Washington State Patrol, but the budget calls for reconsidering which agencies would occupy the building.

Because of the way it’s financed, construction on the office building may be able to move forward without bonds.

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