OLYMPIA — If anything defined Washington’s short, 60-day legislative session this year, it was the money — and lots of it.
Democratic majorities in the House and Senate took full advantage of soaring tax collections amid the waning pandemic and some remaining federal coronavirus relief dollars to push billions of dollars in new spending.
On Thursday evening — the last day of this year’s scheduled legislative session — state lawmakers began taking the final round of votes on the foundations of that approach: a new supplemental state budget and a new transportation-spending package.
A quick summary doesn’t capture the breadth and depth of the boosted spending, which comes atop last year’s large increases. Democratic lawmakers put big chunks of dollars toward housing and homelessness, mental health programs, and climate change priorities. The new supplemental budget gives raises to state workers and funds more K-12 school counselors, nurses, psychologists and social workers.
Democratic lawmakers this year didn’t fare quite so well on writing policy. A chunk of the session was spent making changes and a delay to the WA Cares long-term care program, and passing a few bills that tweaked last year’s package of policing reforms. Democrats also had success on tightening firearms restrictions.
But big pieces of Gov. Jay Inslee’s agenda on climate change, salmon recovery and housing stalled this session. Ditto with other Democratic priorities, like creating minimum hospital-staffing standards. Democratic proposals to give a limited sales-tax holiday and provide free admission to state parks and the state fair bubbled up and faded away.
“This was a difficult short session that required difficult choices,” Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk wrote in an email. “Sixty days isn’t much time to tackle large issues, but the governor applauds the Legislature for passing a landmark transportation package and adding to our already historic investments in climate action and combating homelessness.
“While there were some policy bills that didn’t make it this year, the governor’s priorities are reflected in the budgets and it’s clear there’s intense interest in continuing the policy work on housing, salmon and climate,” Faulk added.
Even the Democratic-sponsored bill to restrict the governor’s emergency powers after two years of unprecedented public-health restrictions — which Republicans called far too weak to be meaningful — stumbled.
Released Wednesday afternoon after closed-door negotiations between House and Senate Democrats, the two spending blueprints add billions of new dollars in spending to programs and projects across Washington state.
With so much money to spend, “You can buy your way through most problems,” said House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm. “So that probably made some things easier for them.”
Wilcox and other Republicans this year were shut out of negotiations on the two proposals. Any many in the GOP called for using this year’s surpluses for some broad tax relief, as state residents see higher costs for rent, housing, food, gasoline and other needs.
“Inflation is getting worse, and we’re going to see it in a new place because of Ukraine,” said Wilcox, referring to Russia’s invasion of that country.
Inslee and Democratic majorities used their windfall to write a state supplemental operating budget that spends $64.1 billion. That’s a sizable boost from the $59 billion state operating budget approved last year, and which pays for schools, prisons, public lands, community programs and social services.
Lawmakers even sent chunks of general tax dollars outside the budget. They gave, for instance $2 billion to help fund the new transportation package.
That 16-year package will cost nearly $17 billion.
It will make big investments in ongoing or new highway projects, such as the Interstate 5 crossing into Oregon, Highway 520 into Seattle and Highway 18. It also boosts funding for road maintenance, pedestrian and bike infrastructure, fish culverts, Washington’s state ferry system, and transit services.
Faulk called it “a transformational, once-in-a-generation feat that represents an understanding that a cleaner transportation system goes hand-in-hand with our climate efforts.”
The state supplemental budget also takes $650 million from general tax collections and puts it toward Washington’s capital-construction budget. Legislators passed that spending blueprint Wednesday, sending it to Inslee’s desk for his signature.
In a statement, Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, touted the spending for homelessness, housing and behavioral health facilities in the new construction budget.
“More than one-third of this $1.5 billion budget goes toward building facilities to address the homelessness and mental health and substance abuse crises affecting us in Seattle and around the state,” Frockt said in prepared remarks. “Over the two-year budget cycle, we will have invested more than a billion dollars in these areas, which has to be a record.”
“These are the tools that the city of Seattle and the King County Regional Homelessness Authority need to show our constituents progress on the homelessness crisis, and they should work with partners to apply for and take advantage of these grants,” Frockt added.
Republicans in the minority this year have mostly stood by, after being frozen out of negotiations on those proposals.
At a 3 p.m. meeting Wednesday to unveil the new operating budget, Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, said he didn’t see the agreement until about an hour before its release.
“As has been the case for as long as I have been the lead House Republican on the Appropriations Committee, [I] did not participate in the negotiation of this budget,” Stokesbary said. “Was not invited to participate.”
“While not in the majority, we still represent approximately 40% of Washingtonians,” he added. “And for them not to have a voice in the room drafting this budget I think does them a real disservice.”
Democratic budget writers spread billions of dollars around the government in the new deal without raising any new taxes.
The new budget does direct $13 million in relief for small businesses from the Business & Occupation tax. It’s enough to give cuts for approximately 125,000 small business owners, or about 70% of businesses in the state, Democratic budget writers have said.
The budget deal leaves $600 million in the state’s rainy day fund. An additional $1.6 billion is put into a special disaster-response account that is intended to help deal with the pandemic.