The state Legislature adjourned Wednesday morning after a 22-hour marathon of negotiations and votes. In the end, both Republicans and Democrats got some of what they wanted.
OLYMPIA — In the end, everyone got a little of what they wanted as the Legislature staggered to a finish Wednesday morning after a roughly 22-hour marathon of negotiations and votes.
Democrats fought off potentially big cuts to the safety net and, with GOP help, eliminated a tax break for big banks. Republicans pushed through some structural changes to the budget, including a reduction in pension benefits, that they say will save the state money in the long run.
Both parties claimed credit for sparing K-12 schools and higher education from more cuts, and sent out statements claiming victory for their respective sides.
Richard Davis, president of the Washington Research Council, a business-backed think tank, gave them a passing grade.
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“They showed a willingness to begin to think beyond just cut or tax and think in terms of reform,” he said. “In the end I think that’s progress.”
The Washington Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, wasn’t as happy. While the Legislature did not cut education funding in the current budget, lawmakers did repeal a suspended class-size reduction initiative, I-728, that educators hoped would provide more money in the future.
And lawmakers approved a bill dealing with K-12 health insurance that worries the union.
“What they did is pass a confusing, complicated bill that will affect the health care of 200,000 educators and their family members … without any chance of input from the people who would be affected,” said Rich Wood, a spokesman for the union.
The Legislature went into special session March 12 after lawmakers were unable to reach agreement on how to close a gaping budget shortfall during the regular session that ended March 8.
Although Democrats hold majorities in both chambers, Republicans controlled the budget in the Senate with the help of three fiscally conservative Democrats.
The Legislature was high-centered for weeks when that coalition insisted on passage of the pension and K-12 health-care bills, along with other legislation, before acting on the state budget.
House Democrats, however, balked at the proposals without significant changes.
They ended up with compromise versions of several key bills pushed by Senate Republicans.
The pension measure that passed Wednesday addresses early-retirement benefits for future state employees. State workers who retire before 62 already receive scaled-back pension benefits. Under the new bill, benefits for workers retiring at 55 would be reduced by as much as 50 percent.
The changes apply only to workers hired starting in May 2013. The plan would save the state an estimated $1.3 billion over 25 years.
In addition, the Legislature approved a balanced-budget measure that would require the state’s two-year budget to be in line with anticipated revenue over a four-year period or 4.5 percent growth per year, whichever is greater.
The requirement would kick in for the 2013-2015 budget cycle.
However the calculation excludes, for 2013 to 2017, additional K-12 funding that’s expected to be needed in the aftermath of last year’s state Supreme Court ruling that found the state isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to fully fund basic public education.
The K-12 health-insurance bill is markedly different from an earlier overhaul plan that would have consolidated benefits for teachers and other public-school employees under a single entity run by the state.
Under the new law, the state’s 295 school districts remain in charge until at least 2016.
The changes are intended to collect more information about the health-care plans offered to employees and to help lower the cost of family coverage.
Currently, some families pay upward of $1,300 per month in premiums, while some workers who cover only themselves pay no premiums. Now, every covered employee will pay a minimum charge.
The legislation also has extensive reporting requirements directing school districts to provide information to the state insurance commissioner regarding what benefits employees get, the premiums paid for coverage and the split in cost between employers and employees, among other things.
The roughly $31 billion budget approved by lawmakers and sent to the governor contained few cuts compared to the size of the budget.
A state summary of the budget shows nearly $300 million in spending reductions. The single biggest cut appears to be a nearly $127 million hit to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the state’s welfare program.
However, budget writers said most of that — $109 million — is assumed caseload savings. In other words, an expectation that fewer people than projected will tap the program.
The budget retains funding for the state Basic Health Plan, which provides health insurance for the poor, and the Disability Lifeline, a program that aids unemployable adults who aren’t covered by federal Social Security benefits. Both programs had been points of contention.
What had been described as a roughly $1 billion shortfall earlier in the year, depending on how much money was left in reserves, was gradually whittled away over the months by a combination of a slowly improving economy, fewer people tapping state services and a lot of accounting maneuvers.
Plus, lawmakers agreed to leave less money in reserves than had been talked about earlier in the year.
The governor had originally proposed leaving around $600 million to deal with unexpected problems.
The Legislature ended up leaving $319 million, and most of that is tied up in a rainy-day account that would require legislative action to tap.
This report includes information from The Associated Press.
Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or firstname.lastname@example.org.