Third time is a charm: Record legislative session finally adjourns after Senate reaches deal on closing $2 billion budget hole.
Washington’s 2015 Legislature adjourned today after a record 176 days and triple overtime session. Despite protracted negotiations and brinksmanship that narrowly averted a partial government shutdown, lawmakers preserved a budget deal that resolved their differences on how to meet the state Supreme Court mandate to put more money into the state’s education system without raising taxes.
Operating budget passed, signed and almost
Last week state lawmakers thought they were heading home after finally passing a budget, yet things did not go according plan. With negotiated agreements on the operating budget, a transportation package and the capital budget in hand, Gov. Jay Inslee and the legislators began last Tuesday expecting they would avoid a government shutdown, complete their work and adjourn sometime Tuesday night. Only the first of those three expectations were met.
Just 30 minutes before a partial government shutdown, the governor signed Senate Bill 6052, making appropriations for the 2015-17 fiscal years. There were big smiles and glowing comments about a “great budget” that lowers college tuition and boosts funding for education, mental health, children’s services and employee salaries without levying new taxes (apart from closing a few “loopholes” and allowing some tax preferences to expire). Those smiles faded fast as legislators returned to their chambers to confront a rising rebellion putting the capital budget, transportation package and even the already passed operating budget seemingly all at risk.
Budget falters on timing of class-size reductions
The budget agreement reached by negotiators assumed Initiative 1351 would be amended to defer its costly requirements. The plan was to delay class-size reductions and changes in the school employee staffing formula for four years, saving an estimated $2 billion. In accordance with that budget agreement, the House passed House Bill 2261, but the Senate was unable to muster the 33-vote supermajority it needed to pass the bill. A contingent of Senate Democrats, largely made up of Senators from the Puget Sound region, withheld their support because they wanted to see a delay in the high school biology test requirement. That created a $2 billion hole in the $38.2 billion state operating budget. This week, however, the Senate passed legislation to delay the high school graduation requirement for two years and to defer class-size reductions for two years.
Agreement found on $16.1 billion transportation package
The budget agreement also faltered on a transportation package that raises revenue, primarily through an increase in the gas tax, to fund new projects and increased maintenance for the transportation system. The 16-year plan spends $8.8 billion on state and local road projects and $1.4 billion on maintenance and preservation. An additional $1 billion would go to non-highway projects, such as bike paths, pedestrian walkways and transit. It also would allow Sound Transit to ask voters to pay for potential expansions of its rail line. This week legislators agreed on an 11.9-cent increase in the gas tax over the next two years and bonds to help cover the costs.