Senate passes budget amid policy, legal questions

Can the Legislature re-purpose state timber trust fund from school construction to general operating purposes?
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State Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom

Can the Legislature re-purpose state timber trust fund from school construction to general operating purposes?

Setting the stage for tense negotiations with Gov. Jay Inslee and House Democrats, the state Senate passed a $33.21 billion tentative 2013-2015 budget Friday. The budget has no new taxes, no closures of tax exemptions, and $1 billion earmarked to start complying with a Washington Supreme Court ruling — the "McCleary decision" — that the state is not meeting its constitutional duties to provide basic education for grades K-12.

The Senate approved the budget on a 30-to-18 vote.

The House Democrats' budget is expected to include new revenues, put more into education and protect more social service programs from cuts. Establishing one front for further battles, Senate Democrats argued that $166 million of the $1 billion that the Washington Senate budget allocates to basic education fix-it work comes from an unconstitutional source.

However, their chief budget negotiator disagreed.

During Friday's debate, Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, contended that part of the McCleary $1 billion comes from state Department of Natural Resources trust land: timber sales money normally provided for school construction. He said it is unconstitutional to reroute state trust land revenue to the state's operating budget to fund the McCleary obligations. Earlier, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina and the House's chief budget writer, made the same criticism.

Frockt warned, "We're going to get a lawsuit out of this."

Republicans did not reply to Frockt's statement during Friday's Senate debate. However, the Senate Democrats' chief budget negotiator, Sen. James Hargrove of Hoquiam, participated with the Republicans in writing the budget. Hargrove said the Senate Ways & Means Committee legal staff researched that issue and concluded the shift is constitutional.

The politics of Friday's budget vote were complicated.

The Majority Coalition Caucus  — 23 Republicans and two Democrats — had the votes to punch through any budget it wanted. But the coalition wanted the endorsement of a good chunk of the 24 minority Democrats in order to jockey for a good position in upcoming budget talks with the Democratic-controlled House. The House is expected to unveil its proposed budget in the next few days.

So, Hargrove and the Democrats' No. 2 budget writer Sen. Sharon Nelson, D-Maury Island, represented the minority in the putting together the budget with the majority coalition with the understanding they would support the finished product. Democrats described the process as bipartisan, but repeatedly added that the actual budget is not bipartisan.

Ultimately, nine Democrats voted for the budget along with 21 Republicans. Two were Sens. Rodney Tom, D-Medina, and Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch — the two Democrats in the majority coalition. Besides Hargrove and Nelson, five other minority Democrats — the most moderate ones — voted for the budget. On the Republican side, strong conservative Sen. Mike Padden, R- Spokane Valley, voted against the budget. Sen. Mike Carrell, R- Lakewood, is hospitalized with a blood disease, and was absent.

Four of the Democrats voting for the budget, including Hargrove and Nelson, want the Senate to explore finding new tax revenue or closing exemptions to find additional money later in this session's budget negotiations.

No new taxes and keeping all tax exemptions intact has been the philosophical cornerstone of the alliance Senate Majority Leader Tom, Sheldon and the 23 Republicans. Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and the coalition's chief budget writer, said, "We built this in a bipartisan manner. ...We had a clear message from the voters that they don't want new taxes."

Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, "We have a balanced budget, and we didn't raise taxes."

Hargrove said the philosophically split Senate needed to pass a tentative budget on Friday in order to have something on the table to begin talks with the House and Gov. Jay Inslee. "If we didn't pass a budget tonight, we never would have gotten one out. Then we would have to wait for one to come out of the House," Hargrove said.

The top priority of both sides has been meeting the mandates of the McCleary decision, which essentially boils down to phasing in all-day kindergartens statewide, dramatically reducing teacher-student ratios in grades K-3, and providing all the equipment, buildings and buses to handle those improvements — all by 2018.

Last year, a bipartisan task force of legislators and educators settled on a $1.4 billion McCleary recommendation for 2013-2015 — with the Republican House members dissenting. The Republican senators on that task force did not endorse the $1.4 billion nor did they offer an alternative plan last year. Inslee believes $1.26 billion will be needed for 2013-2015. The Senate budget allocates $1 billion. In the House, Hunter has talked about a $1.4 billion McCleary appropriation, but that won't be nailed down until the House Democrats unveil their budget.  

The $166 million in trust land revenue helped piece together the Senate's $1 billion.

Meanwhile, Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, criticized another facet of the $1 billion — taking $321 million earmarked to teacher cost-of-living salary increases under Initiative 732, and rerouting that money to the 2013-2015 McCleary projects. "More than $300 million in education spending is coming from salary increases that teachers aren't getting," she said.

The minority Democrats attempted to add $226 million to the $1 billion in McCleary money, wanting to reduce the teacher-student ratios in kindergarten and first grade in high-poverty schools andincrease the annual instruction times in grades 9-12 from 1,000 hours to 1,080 hours. Some training and evaluation overhauls were also included in that proposed amendment.

The majority coalition defeated that proposed amendment by one vote. Hill said the $1 billion funds the transportation and equipment costs to put the McCleary decision into action. "The superintendents came to us and said: 'We're not ready for class reductions yet.' ...This is really a sequencing problem," he said.

The Democrats unsuccessfully tried to add another $229 million to the budget with several defeated amendments. The defeated amendments included restoring housing help for 35,000 poor people, and restoring a cut that trims one type of assistance to poor people from $197 per month per person to $99 per month per person.

"There are hundreds of millions of dollars of tax exemptions that can be closed to support programs like this," said Minority Leader Ed Murray, D-Seattle. Sen. Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, said: "We can't say we're going to focus on education and throw all those poor souls under the bus while on the way."

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at and on Twitter at @johnstang_8