Lawmakers head home after boosting budget
April 23, 2007
Washington lawmakers adjourned their "Families First" session Sunday night after Democrats used their one-party control to push through a record $33.4 billion state budget that spends heavily on education, health care and the environment.
Gavels fell at 9:41 p.m. to end the 105-day session with little more than two hours to spare.
Democrats, who have the governor's mansion and lopsided majorities in both houses after last fall's landslide election, touted their achievements as bold and progressive.
"There were plenty of distractions along the way, but we delivered," said Gov. Chris Gregoire, referring to time-gobbling issues such as a proposed arena for the Seattle SuperSonics and whether to replace the creaky Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle.
She said the session was "packed with a huge amount of success," because it reflected broad citizen concern for schools, health care and the economy.
After Gregoire ticked off several dozen accomplishments at a joint news conference with Democratic legislative leaders, House Speaker Frank Chopp called it "a very, very impressive list. This has been a great session for One Washington. Democrats delivered and we got done on time."
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said lawmakers dealt boldly with significant issues such as climate change, prison reform and a new "rainy day" reserve fund.
Lawmakers also approved delays in the much-maligned Washington Assessment of Student Learning graduation requirements, initiated a paid family leave insurance program, and provided domestic partner benefits.
Minority Republicans, often shut out of the decisions, complained bitterly at session's end about one-party control, and said the state will suffer from the Democrats' free-spending ways. With such a large state surplus, lawmakers should have salted away at least a billion dollars, said House GOP budget leader Gary Alexander of Olympia.
On the final day, a number of big ticket items moved through the Legislature:
BUDGET. Lawmakers approved a $33.4 billion two-year operating budget that uses a large share of the state's $2.2 billion tax surplus to plow more than $1 billion into schools, expand college enrollment by 9,700 students, cover 39,000 more kids in health care, and begin the $8 billion task of cleaning up Puget Sound pollution.
The budget leaves $724 million unspent, including $134 million earmarked for a hard-to-tap "rainy day" account they've asked voters to approve this fall.
Republicans are enthused about the "rainy day" account.
But, "the taxpayers' pockets aren't large enough to accommodate this budget," Alexander said. "We're going to turn a $2 billion surplus into a $2 billion deficit in just a very short period of time. From our perspective it's not a fiscally responsible budget."
The Senate vote was 31-17, mostly a partyline vote with Republicans opposing the plan as too costly. The House followed up with its 60-36 approval after a last-minute hitch developed over unrelated legislation dealing with tribal gasoline sales and taxation. The governor and leaders negotiated a way around the problem and the budget debate ensued with only a few hours left before the midnight adjournment deadline.
Lawmakers sent the governor a $7.5 billion highway budget on Friday that deals with a $2 billion cost overrun for 432 projects that are promised over the next 16 years.
CONSTRUCTION. The House passed and sent the governor a $4.3 billion state construction budget that sailed through the Senate unanimously on Saturday. The House vote was 96-1.
The plan includes $880 million to help local school districts build new schools, $158 million for prisons, $100 million for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program, $226 million for Puget Sound cleanup and salmon recovery, $1.1 billion for higher education buildings, and authorization for a new $110 million State Heritage Center on the Capitol Campus in Olympia.
WASL. Lawmakers passed an 11th-hour bill to delay math and science requirements in the WASL high-school graduation tests, while retaining the 2008 graduation requirement for reading and writing. The measure would allow alternative tests, such as passing the ACT or SAT.
FAMILY LEAVE. The Senate narrowly passed and sent the governor a plan to give new parents five weeks of paid leave at $250 a week, starting in 2009. The measure was a scaled-down version of the original Senate bill, which also would have allowed paid leave to care for seriously ill relatives.
PRISON REFORM. Lawmakers passed a prison reform package designed to reduce Washington's repeat crime rate by ex-offenders.
The legislation includes a variety of rehabilitation programs behind bars — such as schooling and drug and alcohol counseling — and stronger follow-up and supervision of inmates once they're released.
The plan also has a "fair share" provision that says inmates must be released in their home counties. Over time, Spokane and Pierce counties have taken a heavy share of ex-cons.
GAIN-SHARING. The Senate passed and sent the governor a bill to repeal "gain-sharing," under which state and local government pensioners share the gains when Wall Street returns on the state's investments exceed 10 percent a year for four years.
The program threatened to break the bank, backers of repeal said. The legislation adds back some sweeteners to allow some pensioners to retire earlier and provide cost of living increases for others.
The budget is House Bill 1128. The construction budget is HB1092. The WASL bill is SB6023. The prison reform measure is SB6157. Gain-sharing is HB2391.
On the Net:
Gov.'s budget: http://www.ofm.wa.gov