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Washington Governor Signs Operating Budget With 45 Minutes to Spare

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Washington Governor Jay Inslee has signed into law a new two-year state budget that promises significantly more money for public schools. The governor’s action capped a remarkable final day of the 2015-17 biennium.

Legislative budget writers announced mid-week that they’d come to agreement on a state operating budget and an education budget. It didn’t leave them much time to move the budget through the required process before the end of the fiscal year at midnight Saturday.

And so Friday was a busy day.

In the early afternoon, the Senate began debate on the proposed 43-point-seven billion dollar, two-year operating budget. Centralia’s John Braun, the lead for the Senate Republicans, sounded relieved when he rose to urge his colleagues to vote for it.

“You know, when we talk about budgets and negotiations, we often say what comes out reflects our values," Braun said. "And I think it’s pretty obvious from this budget that we share a commitment to public education. But just to highlight a couple of those other things that come out of this budget, we share a commitment to great mental health care in our state. We share a commitment to developing our manufacturing sector in our state to provide family wage jobs around the state.”

The Senate vote was 39-to-10 and the operating budget was sent over to the House.

At the same time, the House was debating a public school budget designed to put significantly more money toward public schools. The document will put about two billion new dollars into K-12 education next year. The goal is to satisfy the state Supreme Court, which is fining the legislature until it approves a budget the court believes adequately funds basic education.

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, one of the lead Democratic negotiators, had the first word as he urged his colleagues to vote for the new budget.

“I’m proud to stand and say today with a great deal of confidence that the passage of this bill will allow us to meet our constitutional obligation to amply fund our schools. Is this bill perfect? No. Will we have to come back and make adjustments and changes? Of course we will," Sullivan said. "But this bill provides significant investments that will allow the one-point-one million schoolchildren in the state of Washington to get opportunities that they’re not getting today.”

The House approved the budget 67-to-26 and sent it the Senate.

Ellensburg Republican Matt Manweller voted for the bill, but also blasted the Supreme Court inserting itself into the legislature’s function of making laws.

“Will we simply hand them the appropriations pen next time?" Manweller asked. "Those questions are not abstract and they should make you feel uncomfortable. I raise this issues, these seemingly esoteric issues because I believe that the day will come when someone in the future will look back and say why did we do the things we did? Why did we surrender so much of our autonomy? Why did we trade a policy victory for an institutional capitulation?”

Later in the afternoon the House took its turn with the operating budget. Spokane Democrat Timm Ormsby, the header of the House Democratic budget delegation, called it a document that puts families first.

“You make sure kids are ready to learn on the first day of kindergarten and we make great advances in doing that," Ormsby said. "You put families first because hungry and sick kids can’t focus and can’t get their school work done.”

Camas Republican Liz Pike urged a no vote, saying the budget leads to a 27% increase in spending over the next two biennia.

“And I think about all the people in my district, all the working families, Mr. Speaker. None of them are going to see a 27% increase in their salaries over the next four years. It’s not going to happen," Pike said. "And I’m sorry to be a wet blanket, Mr. Speaker, but the next economic downturn is right down the road.”

Despite Pike’s argument, the House approved the operating budget 70-to-23 and sent it to the governor.

Then the Senate took up the school budget. It relies on an increase in the state property tax that some Seattle area legislators unfairly benefits rural homeowners and targets Seattle area taxpayers. Seattle Democrat Reuven Carlyle pointed out what he perceives to be the unfairness of that. He thinks there were better ways to raise money for school.

“The middle class is going to feel this in a very real way," Carlyle said. "It could have been a component of it and yet the entire weight, the entire obligation, the entire bill is being sent to middle class, seniors, working folks and renters and so many others.”

The Senate approved the school budget, 32-to-17.

Late in the evening, after working with his staff to quickly vet the budgets, Governor Inslee signed the operating budget with just a few minutes left in the fiscal year.

“I believe this budget, at long last, will meet our constitutional obligations to fully and fairly fund basic education," Inslee said. "And it also addresses the responsibilities we have under the McCleary decision to equitably fund our schools, no matter where they live.”

The signature came in time to keep most of the state government from shutting down. For example, the state insurance commissioner’s office announced Friday afternoon that it had stopped operations. But the state parks department announced that no closings will be necessary.

Our thanks to TVW for the sound in this story.