Washington lawmakers crafted their budget this year largely in secret, and passed it in such a rush that many of them didn’t have time to read it. Now, predictably, we’re paying the price.
When Washington state lawmakers finished writing their $43 billion budget, the writers, who had been meeting in secret, released it to be reviewed by colleagues at 4 a.m. Friday, June 30.
If the public wanted to see the thousand-page blueprint for state government, acopy was posted online that afternoon.
But by 6 p.m., both the state House and Senate had already passed it, rushing to avoid a government shutdown. Leaders dismissed concerns about haste, even as some members warned there wasn’t time to read the bill.
One state senator confessed: “I don’t think any of us knows what is truly in this.”
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At least they got that part right.
Two months later, the more we learn about the work of state lawmakers this year, the worse it looks.
Example: There was much crowing by legislators this year that they had finally delivered to fix Washington’s notoriously bad and underfunded mental-health system.
“If this was not a K-12 year, we would call it a mental-health year,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, at a forum in August.
But this past week, after finally decoding what the budget actually does, state officials revealed that, in fact, it cuts mental-health and substance-abuse treatment in King County by $18 million — or 8 percent compared with last year.
It means that the urban area’s biggest social-services problem, a homelessness emergency fueled by opioid abuse and mental-health issues, is likely to get worse. And apparently it was all just a glitch.
“This is a huge disappointment,” says Nicole Macri, deputy director of the Downtown Emergency Service Center, and also a Democratic state legislator for Seattle’s 43rd District. “Our intent was to put in more money. To find out now that the result is less money is surprising, and very disappointing.
“It shows that these complex issues are difficult to get right when you only leave days, or hours, to work them out.”
Apparently what happened is lawmakers misjudged Medicaid-payment rates. Many homeless people on the street with schizophrenia, depression or drug addiction can get treatment under Medicaid. But the math of these payments in the budget, finally sent out this week by state officials, resulted in the Legislature spending less money, not more as it said it was doing.
Because the final state budget was crafted in secret, there was no way to vet it, county officials say. It was passed June 30 without even a public hearing — which is shocking for a $43 billion document.
Macri says hospitals, such as beleaguered Western State psychiatric hospital in Pierce County, are not affected by the cuts.
What is getting cut is money for local psychiatrists and counselors who “help manage the instability and chaos on the streets.” That’s arguably Seattle’s No. 1 need right now.
“The fact is that we will be forced to reduce mental-health and substance-use disorder treatment at a time when King County is fighting homelessness and a heroin epidemic,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine.
There also are signs that the Legislature’s much-ballyhooed “fix” of its school-funding crisis was a bit of a mirage, too. Seattle has been pointing out its schools will end up worse off, money-wise, by 2020, despite a giant property-tax hit on city residents. Some other school districts also are noticing this — now that they’ve had a chance to review what lawmakers actually did.
Add to this the Legislature’s failure to pass a capital budget for the first time, and this is one shoddy way to run a government.
What’s maddening is that practically everyone, from the right to the left, seems aligned that mental-health and drug treatment are crucial to solving the homelessness emergency. But they crashed even that one-car parade.
The Legislature has got to get it together. D.C.-style suspicion and dysfunction caused it to go into a behind-closed-doors lockdown for weeks.
Open government is often treated as the tedious concern of ethicists, or wonks who like watching legislative paint dry. But this story is why it matters. Because without it, they make big mistakes. Now we have to live with the consequences.