Amid uncertainty and despite some objection, lawmakers finalize operating budget

Amid uncertainty, lawmakers finalize operating budget
The state legislature has approved a 2020 supplemental budget amid unease over the effect of coronavirus on the state economy. Photo: freepik.com

The state legislature voted to approve a final 2020 supplemental budget that adds just under $1 billion in new spending for the 2019-2021 biennium, several hundred million dollars less than the initial budget proposals released from both chambers.

Lawmakers also withdrew $200 million from the budget stabilization account to address the coronavirus. However, it remains to be seen whether the virus’ impacts to the economy may drain unanticipated revenue that allowed for the new spending.

“Due to the unfolding economic turmoil caused by the global coronavirus pandemic, it is more likely than not we’ll see our lawmakers back in action again later this year,” Washington Policy Center Government Reform Director Jason Mercier wrote in a recent blog post.

The initial budget cleared the House on Feb. 28, a day before Governor Jay Inslee issued an emergency proclamation regarding the coronavirus. In the weeks following as the budget writers met in conference, schools have closed and large public gatherings have been prohibited, while major state employers struggle with decreased business activity in addition to the small business that depend on them.

“This session has been like no other,” Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Christine Rolfes (D-23) told colleagues March 12 on the Senate floor. “These last couple of weeks have been like no other in our memory – where a public health emergency has drastically… altered the trajectory of our budget as well as the trajectory of many of our lives.”

The budget adds $961 million in spending for the biennium, with $159 million dedicated for homelessness programs. Other appropriations include:

  • $250,000 for an additional state bank study;
  • $353,000 to continue studying the lower Snake River dams despite the recent release of a state stakeholder report; and
  • $600,000 for the state Department of Commerce to develop a “comprehensive analysis of statewide emissions reduction strategies.”

Rolfes noted that the budget leaves almost $3 billion in the rainy-day fund at the end of the biennium and $3.6 million at the end of the 2021-2023 biennium. It also does not assume additional revenue due to the recent passage of SB 6690 which eliminates preferential tax rates for the aerospace industry.

“We are facing this uncertain future that we’re looking at over the next few months in a better place than we have ever been fiscally thanks to the booming economy,” Rolfes said. “We are as well positioned as we can be to face the upcoming uncertainties.”

However, Senate Ways and Means Ranking member Sen. John Braun (R-20) was one of 21 senators who opposed the budget, calling it a “mixed bag.” While the budget keeps a sizeable reserve, he added that the homelessness funding “goes into programs that frankly haven’t shown the results that we’d all like to see.”

The budget now requires Inslee’s signature.

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