Democrats controlling the 2019 Legislature advanced some important policies. But this progress came at a breathtaking cost and they fell short in several key areas.
Though state revenue surged last year, the Legislature still couldn’t live within its means and passed a dizzying array of tax increases. As has become lawmakers’ secretive norm, some were passed in the wee hours with last-minute bills, precluding public engagement and analysis of how much they’ll cost residents.
How many workers realize their paychecks will be reduced by a new 0.58% payroll tax, collecting $1 billion a year to fund a state long-term care insurance program? Who knows what higher bank taxes will do to checking-account fees and mortgage costs?
The net effect was to boost state spending 18% in the next biennium to $52.4 billion, outpacing population growth that was only 1.6% last year.
Much of the increase goes to public-employee salary and benefit increases. That includes raises for state employees negotiated by Gov. Jay Inslee and a generous new insurance benefit for part-time school workers, who will now receive full medical coverage for working just 630 hours per year.
Despite rivers of new revenue, legislators still failed to fully fund schools as promised. Here’s a look at how they fared on our to-do list for the 2019 session:
Special education: The state made progress fulfilling its funding obligation and some good policy changes such as more paraeducator training. But the $155 million increase for special ed fails to cover a gap exceeding $300 million. Total state spending on special ed will be about $3.5 billion over two years but funding formulas still leave some districts’ costs uncovered. This could prompt a lawsuit.
Lawmakers had enough money sloshing around to fully support children with special educational needs. But they weren’t as high a priority as a $900 million promise made to school-worker unions, to sweeten their insurance benefits.
Local levies: Legislators also buckled to demands they break local school levy limits. Recall that McCleary reforms increased state education taxes and funding and restricted how much districts could collect locally, to prevent backsliding on the shift to state funding all of basic education. The formulas needed tinkering because some districts were left short in the transition. But legislators went too far by allowing substantially larger local levies. An attempt to add language ensuring that higher local levies are only used for enhancement programs, and prevent them from being used to further increase basic-education salaries and worsen inequity between rich and poor districts, was irresponsibly rejected.
Mental health: Great progress was made addressing the state’s meager, underfunded mental-health system. The Legislature wisely embraced some of the governor’s proposals. New community-based behavioral health services and upgrades of Western State and Eastern State hospitals were all funded. Starting investments were made in a University of Washington-run 150-bed behavioral health teaching facility that can’t come soon enough. Also funded are contracts with private hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities to provide inpatient care and discharge placements.
Environment: Orcas should benefit from increased salmon-hatchery funding and new tug-escort rules for oil shipments in Puget Sound and Rosario Strait. Forest ecosystems should benefit from large investments in forest management, habitat and firefighting. Legislators rejected Inslee’s most ambitious environmental proposal, a low-carbon fuel standard, but passed a measure requiring electric utilities to provide 100 percent clean power by 2045, similar to California and Hawaii initiatives. Disappointingly, there was no fiscal note explaining what this will cost ratepayers but the law, and its tax breaks for utilities, should increase investment in renewable energy sources.
Public records: Legislators rightly rejected a problematic records bill early in the session. The proposal sought a compromise on bringing legislators into compliance with the Public Records Act. But this isn’t negotiable: Legislators must comply and don’t warrant special exemptions, as was ruled in a lawsuit now under appeal to the state Supreme Court.
Records are one of several ways the public is informed. Another is through a transparent legislative process providing time for public review and comment on proposed laws. Legislators regularly stumble in this regard, using tricks like title-only bills with no text, but this year’s last-minute, late-night budgeting frenzy was a new low point. Reforming the budget process to provide more transparency and opportunity for public engagement should be a top priority of chamber leadership.