An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How Washington lawmakers want to spend another $2 billion with this year’s state budget

Austin Jenkins/Northwest News Network

Pay raises and inflation. Hospital beds and opioid treatments. Special education and college financial aid. Electric-powered fire trucks and soccer field renovations.

Democratic budget writers in the Senate and House penciled in money for these, and much more, in spending proposals released Monday.

Last session, Washington lawmakers passed budgets covering day-to-day operations, capital construction and transportation for a two-year period that began July 1, 2023. Now they are considering supplemental budgets, which would adjust each of those spending plans to cover new expenditures through June 30 next year, when the budget cycle concludes.

What’s next? Both proposals received public hearings Monday. Budget votes are anticipated in the Senate on Friday and in the House the next day. Then negotiations get serious with a final agreement expected a couple of days before the session ends on March 7.

“I don’t think we expect any massive philosophical disagreements,” Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, chair of the House Appropriations Committee, said regarding differences with the Senate.

Balance sheets

How much do House and Senate Democrats spend in their respective plans? Pinning down a precise number isn’t easy.

Here’s what we know. Both assume $1.1 billion for “maintenance level” costs which are the ongoing expenses of what the government already has underway. Inflation and negotiated pay raises are factored in. So too is increased demand for public services be it in public schools, correctional facilities, hospitals and Medicaid.

New spending – “policy changes” in legislative budgeting vernacular – is where it gets interesting. There’s $722 million of investmentsin the Senate plan versus $1.1 billion in the House blueprint. This is where serious negotiating occurs because these are hard dollars for expanding existing services or launching new ones.

Climate Commitment Act dollars are part of the equation too. Senate Democrats count on $280 million while their House counterparts settled on $237 million.

Added up, the Senate hikes spending by around $2.1 billion, the House by close to $2.5 billion.

Whatever they end up with will be on top of the two-year $69.8 billion operating budget the Legislature passed last April.

K-12 schools

Special education funding is one wrinkle negotiators must iron out. The state provides extra K-12 dollars for students with special education needs. But under current law, it only does so for up to 15% of a school’s student population. The Senate budget includes $13.5 million to nudge that percentage up to 15.6. Meanwhile, the House wants to raise it to 17.25% and its budget contains $32.3 million to cover that cost, plus paying for teaming special education teachers with mentors to work on coursework.

The Senate earmarks $49.6 million to support increased staffing, prevent layoffs, or increase salaries of paraeducators, office support, and non-instructional aides next school year. They would let districts decide how to spread that money within these categories. The House proposes an additional $43.4 million for K-12 materials, supplies and operating costs, pointing to utilities, insurance and security as some specific areas where the additional money would go.

Mental health

Both budgets put heavy emphasis on funding mental health services, including staffing and facilities across the state.

Both budgets contain around $140 million for operating the Olympic Heritage Behavioral Health facility. The House plan says the amount would cover 72 beds for civil conversion patients – people who face criminal charges but are found unfit to stand trial. The Health Care Authority would oversee another 40 beds at the psychiatric hospital. Robinson noted that the facility has high staffing demands and that the state needs to pay enough to keep people working there. It’s “probably some of the most challenging work that we have for state employees,” she added.

Both budgets also fund 30 new beds at Western State Hospital and eight new beds at Eastern State Hospital. Both proposals also set aside more than $31 million to maintain contracted staffing levels at these facilities.

The University of Washington Behavioral Health Teaching Facility also receives $20 million under both proposals.

Both chambers also set aside money to continue supporting the University of Washington Medical Center and Harborview Medical Center. The Senate has $65 million, and the House has $50 million.

Opioid settlements

Lawmakers use some of the funds that Washington received in legal settlements with companies involved in the opioid industry.

The Senate allots about $36 million and the House about $28 million to fund treatment and prevention efforts. Around $7 million is set aside in both proposals for medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder in jails. There is also money for outreach, prevention and intervention services in public health settings, K-12 schools and in higher education. Both budgets also fund a campaign to educate and prevent opioid misuse among tribal communities and a tribal fentanyl summit with tribal and state leaders to discuss the impacts of the opioid crisis in Native communities.

Pollution proceeds

The state has hauled in plenty of money from its auction of air pollution allowances to businesses with carbon emissions. Last session, lawmakers doled out roughly $2.1 billion through the operating, capital and transportation budgets, with $445 million in operating accounts.

With collections coming in higher than expected, Democrats are ready to funnel more into their spending plans – about $280 million in the Senate offering, $238 million in the House version. There will be another billion dollars or so from the climate program steered to the capital and transportation budgets.

Both plans embrace Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal to use $150 million to provide a one-time $200 credit on residential electricity bills for an estimated 750,000 low- and moderate-income Washington families.

Redmond and Bellevue will get shares of $800,000 in the Senate plan to buy hybrid-electric fire engines and install electric charging infrastructure for the rigs.

A looming initiative to repeal the Climate Commitment Act threatens the future availability of the funds. Both proposals hold back money for some new climate projects until January 2025, in case voters approve the initiative in November.

Housing and homelessness

Most housing construction is funded in the capital budget, but some money is set aside in the operating proposals for housing and alleviating homelessness.

The Senate’s proposal’s largest items include $20 million in grants to local governments to help them keep affordable housing and homelessness programs running and almost $12 million for grants to support people in need of emergency housing assistance, survivors of human trafficking and other programs to help people experiencing homelessness. In that, about $5 million is set aside to provide transitional and long-term housing support for migrants who have been residing at an encampment in Tukwila.

The House sets aside more money for these programs, with $30 million for grants to maintain affordable housing and $40 million for maintaining homeless services, such as shelters and temporary housing.

Odds and ends

The World Cup is coming to Seattle in two years, and budget leaders are preparing for it. In the Senate, $180,000 is set aside for lighting upgrades and field renovations ahead of the six matches the city will host. The House wants to spend a bit more, with $1 million to promote tourism related to the event. That’s funded by federal COVID-19 dollars.

The House also devotes $30 million to pay farmers who bought fuel for agricultural purposes but had to pay a surcharge due to the Climate Commitment Act. Under the new climate program, fuel used for agricultural purposes is supposed to be exempt from these kinds of added fees.

Child care and early learning providers may see some extra support based on the House’s proposal. The House included almost $7.8 million to pay for professional development, translation services and mental health consultations for providers and children.

The Senate budget accounts for savings from the Larch Corrections Center closure – almost $34 million every two years, to be exact. But after taking into account expenses tied to closing the facility and shifting around prisoners and staff, the savings amount to about $9.5 million through the end of this budget cycle. Senate budget writers also fund a task force to determine what to do with the southwest Washington facility now that the prison is closed. A report from that panel, which gets $298,000 in the budget, is due by June 2025.

- - -

This story was originally published by Washington State Standard.