2017 legislative session produces major achievements for Washington

Accomplishments include fully-funding K-12 education and a paid family leave program, but capital budget stalls

Gov. Jay Inslee attends his inauguration ceremony in January at the beginning of the 2017 legislative session. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

OLYMPIA — At the outset of the 2017 legislative session, Gov. Jay Inslee and lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were well aware of the huge task they faced. While significant progress had been made the previous four years toward meeting the state’s constitutional mandate to fully fund basic education, the job was far from complete.

In his inaugural address in January, Inslee likened it to climbing a mountain. “Mountain climbers will tell you that every ascent has a crux move, the moment at which they face the hardest, most difficult pitch,” he told lawmakers. “For us, this is that moment.”

So how did they do?

They approved a new two-year budget that includes a K-12 funding overhaul that meets the state’s basic education obligation for the first time in more than 30 years. Besides addressing significant local inequities across Washington, the plan will increase salaries for teachers and other school staff and boost funding for teacher mentoring.

Chris Reykdal, the state’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, called the plan “a substantial step in the right direction.”

“The budget goes beyond the basics to invest more in low-income students, career and technical education, and other critical elements that provide equal opportunity for all students,” Reykdal said. He added that the state must now work to fully fund special education and other vital programs “that set Washington up for the innovative and diverse education system we need moving forward now that we have shored up the system that was drafted almost a decade ago.”

Under the new budget, kindergarten through 12th-grade spending will make up 50 percent of total state General Fund spending for the first time since the 1980s. All told, Inslee and lawmakers have added $4.5 billion in new K-12 spending since 2013. By 2021, total new funding will grow to nearly $10 billion.

Inslee said he believes legislators “made one of the biggest strides ever in educational funding.”

Tackling the decades-old education funding problem was clearly this year’s top priority. The state Supreme Court will likely review legislators’ progress later this year to determine if the state has done enough to warrant lifting the contempt order under the McCleary lawsuit.

But as lawmakers head home, they have several other historic achievements to tout.

New laws

Legislators approved a bipartisan bill to create a new, best-in-the-nation paid family and medical leave program that will help ensure workers can care for their families and loved ones without jeopardizing their economic security. The new program, one of just a handful in the nation, is funded jointly by employees and employers and will provide up to 12 weeks of paid family leave and 12 weeks of paid medical leave per year. That leave is capped at 16 weeks if the employee needs both types of time off in a one-year period.

Gov. Jay Inslee poses for a photo in early July after signing a bill to create a new paid family and medical leave program in Washington state. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

“Paid family leave is a tremendous victory for Washington families,” said Maggie Humphreys of MomsRising. “This legislation means that Washington state will have one of the best paid family leave programs in the country and it will be a model for other states.”

Humphreys says she’s heard numerous stories that illustrate why paid leave is so important. She shared one story of a woman from Puyallup who saved money to take leave when her child was born, but her baby ended up in intensive care and her savings weren’t enough. Another woman shared the difficulties she faced as the sole caregiver for her dying mother, and because she had no access to paid leave, she was forced to leave her job.

Lawmakers also agreed to the governor’s proposal to form a new state agency to oversee early learning, child welfare and juvenile justice programs. By merging these services in the new Department of Children, Youth and Families, the state will be better equipped to prevent harm to children and support those who assist them, giving Washington kids the best possible start in school and in life.

Gov. Jay Inslee visits with constituents earlier this month after signing a bill to create the new Department of Children, Youth and Families. (Official Governor’s Office Photo)

And legislators strengthened the state’s distracted driving law by making it illegal for a person to use a personal electronic device in his or her hands while driving. (Minimal use of a finger to activate or deactivate a function on a device is permitted.) The new restrictions, among the toughest in the country, take effect Sunday.

Lawmakers also approved legislation to:

  • Strengthen the state’s firearms background check system by requiring firearms dealers to report when a person fails a background check or lies on a firearms application.
  • Provide more flexibility for siting new schools outside urban growth areas and for developing unused land along short line railroads in Clark and Okanogan counties.
  • Require health plans that cover contraceptive drugs to provide 12-month refills at one time unless the enrollee requests a smaller supply.

“The bill to offer 12 months of birth control is invaluable to me and other women throughout the state,” said Laura Hamilton, a Bellingham woman with endometriosis who regulates her condition through contraception. “I have been taking contraceptives for 10 years now, and it has been successful. I can’t imagine what it would be like if I hadn’t had a parent or sibling take me to the pharmacy every three weeks, or even talking about birth control at 13 years old. This bill helps women take their health into their own hands.”

More budget wins

In addition to fully funding basic education, the operating budget makes significant progress on several other fronts. Most notably, it provides more than $100 million in state funds ($177 million in total funds) for improvements to the state’s mental health system. This includes $61 million for improvements at Western State Hospital, based on recommendations from expert consultants and the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Another $66 million will be used to expand community-based capacity for commitments ordered by the courts.

“When the governor set out his budget in December, he made mental health funding a priority and set some very lofty goals to transform the system,” said David Johnson, CEO of Navos, a community behavioral health provider of integrated care in inpatient and outpatient services. Inslee visited one of the company’s facilities last year.

“These resources provide a foundation for a strong and responsive community treatment system, and are essential for retaining and recruiting the professional behavioral health workforce needed to provide care for these vulnerable populations,” Johnson said. “These interventions help patients stay in their communities while providing support for stability and ensuring safety and quality.”

The new budget also adds 1,800 state-funded preschool slots and increases rates for preschool providers; boosts financial aid at the state’s colleges and universities; and provides pay raises to help state agencies recruit and retain a strong workforce.

Impasse on capital budget

Unfortunately, legislators adjourned without completing one major task — passage of a $4.2 billion capital budget for hundreds of construction projects around the state. Senate Republicans insisted on using the construction budget as “leverage” for a fix to a Supreme Court water rights decision known as Hirst that prohibits some property owners from drilling new wells.

As it became clear that agreement on a permanent solution would be difficult to reach in the remaining days of the session, the governor and House Democrats proposed a 24-month Hirst delay that would allow property owners to drill wells for the next two years while they continued work.

“I think Washingtonians should feel rightfully disappointed that the legislature did not produce a construction budget that is so important for building schools, adding classrooms, taking care of our mental health facilities, and building community facilities across the state of Washington,” Inslee said at a media availability Thursday evening.

Republicans insisted throughout the final day said of the third special session that until a Hirst bill was passed and signed by the governor, they would not vote on a capital budget. Inslee said he will continue to work with legislators on a solution and once they indicate that they have an agreement and are ready to vote, he will call them back to Olympia.

In the meantime, construction projects throughout the state are suspended or postponed, including much-needed facility upgrades that would allow more patients at the state’s mental hospitals, new science buildings at Eastern Washington University and Edmonds Community College, and replacement of a century-old sewer system in Carbonado.