First, the kudos: Lawmakers deserve some credit for making deadline. The 2019 Legislature adjourned at midnight Sunday night, the end of the constitutionally mandated 105-day session.
Of course, one could argue that praise is not warranted simply for doing your job, but even that has been difficult for lawmakers in recent years. There has been nothing special about special sessions over the past decade; they have become routine. But beyond kudos for managing to adjourn as scheduled and preventing the governor from calling an overtime session, this year’s Legislature receives a mixed report card.
Our biggest criticism involves the most pressing issue: The operating budget, which will pay for most state programs, policies and salaries for the next two years. The House passed the $52.4 billion budget on a 57-41 vote, after it had passed the Senate 27-21.
In hammering out a budget agreement, lawmakers worked long into the night over the course of several days. In the end, they approved more than $800 million in new taxes, including an increase in the Business & Occupation tax on large banks and a change to the real estate excise tax.
With Democrats in solid control of both the House and Senate, local Republican representatives Brandon Vick and Larry Hoff issued a joint statement during negotiations: “The process of developing the 2019-21 operating budget has been nothing short of imprudent. Not only has the majority party shut Republicans out of negotiations, but they have decided to raise taxes without providing ample time for taxpayers to weigh in. That is deeply concerning for those of us in the minority.”
The budget also includes an adjustment to the levy system for public school districts, increasing the cap on levies from $1.50 per $1,000 in assessed value to $2.50 per $1,000 in value. Voters in an individual district must pass levies by a majority vote. The Columbian editorially urged lawmakers to not lift the levy lid, arguing that the lid was the result of a hard-won compromise, that it protected taxpayers and that lifting it revives the possibility of inequities among districts and invites legal action.
Now that it has been lifted, we hope those predictions are unfounded. If the change helps improve outcomes for students throughout the state, we will express our support.
Lawmakers also approved increased funding for Western State Hospital, the state’s troubled psychiatric facility near Tacoma, and provided an additional $47 million over the next two years to create a network of regional mental health facilities. The state’s beleaguered mental health system is in need of change; with money being sent in that direction, now it is in need of effective oversight.
And lawmakers provided funding for several of Gov. Jay Inslee’s environmental priorities. After earlier approving a measure to eliminate fossil fuels from the state’s electricity supply by 2045, they have positioned Washington as a leader in green energy.
And yet, questions remain about the process that led to the final operating budget. A system that has lawmakers creating, debating and passing a budget in the final days of the session poorly serves residents.
During odd-year sessions, the Legislature is tasked with devising a two-year operating budget that is the entree of the meal lawmakers serve to taxpayers. Cooking that up in the final days and holding floor debates in the middle of the night leaves voters hungering for more transparency. But at least they delivered it on time.