Schools, housing, salaries score big in Senate Dems $70B budget

The proposed spending plan also spends money to fight climate change, help abortion providers and study police pursuits

OLYMPIA — Senate Democrats on Thursday (March 23) released a blueprint for spending $70 billion in the state’s next two-year budget with large boosts in funding for special education, housing, behavioral health services and combating climate change.

It’s also got smaller sums to assist abortion providers, study police chases and bolster the availability of treatment services for those with substance use disorder.

“(It) is ambitious but it’s responsible. It rises to the many challenges people are facing in the state,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and lead budget writer.

Overall, the proposal spends roughly $5.1 billion more than the current budget expiring in June and leaves $3.8 billion in total reserves. It contains no new general taxes or fees but it does rely on money from the capital gains tax, which faces a legal challenge in the state Supreme Court.

Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, the committee’s vice chair, said she is “very proud” of the spending plan as it “addresses the greatest needs we are seeing in our communities right now.”

Republicans applauded too, calling it the most inclusive budget proposal seen in years.

“Because our colleagues extended us this opportunity to be at the table, we were able to offer our input on many issues, and the final document does a good job of reflecting the priorities we share,” said Sen. Chris Gildon, R-Puyallup, the assistant Republican leader on the committee. “I am especially pleased we were able to come up with a budget that fully funds our government and does not require a tax increase.”

Education scored well. The budget steers an additional $2.9 billion into public schools to address student learning loss from the pandemic, workforce shortages and inflation-driven rise in operating costs.

Of the sum, $472 million is earmarked for special education services including providing families with advocates and assisting districts with transportation costs. There is $264 million to cover statutorily required cost-of-living increases for teachers.

Will this be enough for districts like Everett and Stanwood Camano which are eyeing layoffs and programs to erase looming deficits?

“I’m hopeful this budget targets some of the relief they need,” Rolfes said, adding it won’t alleviate loss of funds due to declining enrollment.

This is the first budget cycle with money to spend from the state’s new cap-and-trade system.

Senate Democrats allotted $679 million for clean energy projects, improving energy efficiency in homes and buildings, utility assistance for low-income households, salmon recovery and improving air quality in communities where pollution levels are measurably higher.

The plan contains $424 million for new behavioral health crisis facilities, more community-based housing, and new programs to support people with special needs, such as developmental disabilities or chronic mental illness.

Some of those dollars are intended to open up the initial 16 beds of a mental health treatment center in Stanwood. The proposed 32-bed facility received a conditional use permit earlier this month. However, the permitting decision is under appeal.

On housing, Senate Democrats are pouring $298 million into an array of efforts to keep people in their homes, remove people encamped on public highway right-of-ways and provide immediate shelter for homeless individuals and families. When combined with outlays in the capital budget, Rolfes said the Senate is pledging close to $1 billion for housing programs and services.

There’s $829 million to give state workers raises of 4% on July 1, 2023 and 3% the following July. There’s also an opportunity for $1,000 bonuses for getting a COVID booster shot. And $688 million is targeted for rate increases for providers of long-term care which should translate into higher pay for in-home providers and employees of adult family homes, skilled nursing facilities and assisted living facilities.

Salary increases are peppered throughout the budget to help ease shortages of workers throughout the public sector and health care industry.

“I don’t know if we’ll solve the workforce problem,” Robinson said. “We’ll certainly have done our best to address the workforce challenges.”

Another focal point is the Blake decision, a 2021 Supreme Court ruling erasing a state law making drug possession a felony. It’s led to thousands of people getting out of jail, getting possession convictions vacated and lining up to get reimbursed for any fines they paid.

This budget directs $115 million to assist prosecutors, defense counsel and judges dealing with a backlog of resentencings. A share is also earmarked for setting up a means of providing refunds through the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Separately, there’s $55 million for an array of opioid treatment programs and services outlined in legislation authored by Robinson.

Two hot button issues — abortion and police pursuits — are covered in different line items.

Senate Democrats penciled in $20 million to reimburse abortion clinics for abortion care, assist with recruitment and retention of workers and provide grants to public four-year universities to develop and offer abortion care training for students and licensed providers. These would be for colleges that already offer advanced degrees in nursing, medicine or pharmacy.

And Democrats earmarked $3 million in grants for law enforcement agencies to acquire technology for managing pursuits and $165,000 to craft a model policy for conduct of chases. That policy would be due Oct. 1, 2024.

A hearing on the Senate budget will be held Friday in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

House Democrats will put forth their proposed operating budget Monday. Once each chamber passes a plan, budget writers will begin reconciling differences.

The 105-day legislative session ends April 23.

Gov. Jay Inslee will be involved in conversations, too. The Democratic governor’s operating budget proposal released in December, contained $70 billion in spending with $2.65 billion in reserves.

One point of contention is Inslee’s proposed $4 billion bond measure to catalyze the building of thousands of new affordable housing units in the next six years. The governor has said the money could spur the addition of 5,300 units in the initial two years, and 19,000 in the ensuing six years.

Senate Democrats are not pursuing the idea. Democratic leaders in the House won’t say if they will either.

Inslee sharply criticized the Senate’s approach, saying it would take the state backwards on housing.

“In the middle of a housing crisis, less is unacceptable. We need to go big, so people can go home,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, responded Wednesday, saying he was “really disappointed” with the content and the tone of the governor’s comments, some of which were “outright false.”

He said he hoped the governor would be collaborative and “part of the team” to compose a plan to make more housing available to those who need it.