Senate OKs $32.2 billion state budget

The Olympian

Posted 5/26/2011

Olympia, WA - State lawmakers Wednesday ended their 135 days of work the same way they started: by reaching across party lines.

The Senate voted 34-13 to give final approval to a $32.2 billion budget agreement that emerged from a side-by-side effort by majority Democrat and minority Republican senators. The budget lops nearly $5 billion in projected state spending for public schools, universities and the social-safety net for the poor, and even pay for state workers and schoolteachers.

One of the last big fights of the session was Gov. Chris Gregoire’s plan to restructure five state agencies – taking parts of the departments of Personnel, General Administration and Information Services and other state functions and recasting them into two new agencies.

Disputes over taking away some workers’ rights in the new Department of Enterprise Services and new Consolidated Technology Services unit created a logjam until the final day of the 30-day special session. The barrier was removed by taking Republican-backed pieces of the Senate bill and Democrat-backed pieces from the House.

Lawmakers adjourned the 2011 session at 10:26 p.m.

“I feel really good about what we were able to accomplish. We saved the social safety net in a bipartisan budget,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said early in the evening, still waiting for final votes on budget-related bills. “We kind of broke the paradigm and had people working together. I saw very few times with caucuses locking up. So we really were achieving a philosophical majority on these bills.”

Among the session highlights: Major agreements keeping down unemployment insurance rates; reforms to the workers’ compensation system also intended to keep down rate increases for businesses; a bill to transition the TransAlta coal-fired power plant off coal by 2025; and numerous health care bills that get the state ready for federal health reforms that take effect in 2014.

The budget agreement was reached without new taxes but a flurry of new fees – including a new $30-a-year Discover Pass for visitors to parks and recreation areas.


Another round of fees died in the waning hours of the 30-day special session. The Senate been considering $70 million in new fees on drivers to raise money for ferries, buses, the State Patrol and other parts of the state budget.

Majority Democrats pushed the transportation fees through the House earlier in the day over unanimous Republican opposition. But the plan didn’t include making driver’s licenses more expensive. Lawmakers dropped that idea when they scaled back their original proposal that also would have set new fees on vehicle dealers, wreckers and studded tires.

They retained just a few of the more than 90 fees they originally proposed, including a new $20 fee on a car’s original license plates.

Some of the fees are past due for increases, supporters say. A pair of fees paid when a car changes ownership were last increased in 2002, to $9. The bill would more than double them, to $23.

The money raised would go mostly to spending items that don’t benefit from gas-tax money and are facing major shortfalls. Eighteen percent would go to public transportation, including $1.5 million for Pierce Transit.

That state money wouldn’t nearly fill Pierce Transit’s $51 million two-year budget gap, which it is solving through 35 percent reductions in bus service starting next month. But it would reduce those cuts, said Jessyn Farrell of Pierce Transit.

“This does allow us to put some trips back in where people can use it,” she said.

Every $100,000 for Pierce Transit can pay for about 17,000 bus trips over a yearlong period, Farrell said. So the proposed state money would pay for the equivalent of about 255,000 trips.

Rather than saving routes targeted for elimination, the money would more likely help keep more trips on routes that it maintains, she said.

The share of that money that would go to transit helped keep Republicans from supporting it, Rep. Mike Armstrong of Wenatchee said before the 53-43 vote.

Republicans backed small fee increases on behalf of ferries, the State Patrol and local government but saw even the scaled-back proposal as too large, he said, especially given that much of the revenue is spent on different activities than it is collected from.

“It all of a sudden starts looking like more of a tax than a fee increase,” Armstrong said.

Opposition from Republicans in the Senate looked like it might kill the measure. Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, was disappointed. She said the measure was needed to tide the state over until a 2012, when she hopes voters will approve new transportation taxes.

“It’s really just a little bit of bridge money to get us through this huge problem we’ve got facing us,” she said.


A brokered agreement to consolidate parts of five state agencies into two new ones passed the House on a bipartisan 54-42 vote in the evening. The controversial measure takes away some state employee bargaining rights in the new agencies and passed despite 36 of 56 House Democrats voting against it.

The Senate quickly followed suit on a 31-15 vote that also relied on bipartisan support.

The Washington Federation of State Employees blasted Senate Bill 5931, which exempts the new Consolidated Technology Services agency from having to let state workers compete for jobs that are put out to the private sector in the new data center. The bill also exempts up to six activities every two years in the new Department of Enterprise Services from the state law giving workers a chance to compete for their jobs.

The final bill does not abolish the state printer, which Republicans originally sought, but the agency is melded into the new DES. However, the bill lets agencies go directly to private print shops with major jobs.

Democratic Rep. Zack Hudgins of Tukwila said he was able to limit Republicans’ push to contract out more state work to the private sector. He said the bill limits the amount of contracting out that can be done without employees having a say.

“This is a major government restructuring,” Hudgins said. “We are taking parts of five very large and important agencies and putting them together. We are saving money and trying to look at new ways of doing things.”

Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County said the new CTS agency needs flexibility in how it consolidates the information-services activities across many agencies. He said the state spends $1.9 billion every two years on information and technology, and it now embarks on a new way of managing technology services in the newly built State Data Center.

Democratic Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia and the federation questioned what they felt was an attack on state workers. And he questioned whether the mergers can work.

“It has some good accountability measures in it. Were it not for the rush to privatization, it would be a better bill,” Hunt said. “I just don’t think major government reform is done well with a gun pointed at your head. I hope to hell it works.”

He said it is a “risky proposition” for Gregoire’s administration to merge General Administration, Personnel and some Office of Financial Management, Information Services and other functions into the new DES headquarters by Oct. 1.

Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, voted for the bill because he tried for three years to get better oversight of the state’s technology spending. He said five elements of the compromise bill come from his proposals, some of which Gregoire has vetoed before. One is a requirement that a state chief information officer in a soon-to-be-created position put in a single budget request for all agencies’ technology needs and projects.

He also sought a requirement that no agency’s IT project can move ahead without approval or funding from a new Technology Services Board. Carlyle said the state has several projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars for community colleges, the Department of Licensing, the Office of Financial Management and others that will have to get a second opinion and also have to show there is a good business reason for making the investments.


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