Washington Legislature adjourns for year, passing $64 billion budget, $17 billion transportation package


OLYMPIA — State lawmakers finished their work Thursday, passing the state budget on party lines and completing other important legislation.

The Legislature adjourned for the year Thursday just before the midnight deadline with more than half of its members — masked and mostly socially distant — in person on the floor after starting the session in January almost fully virtual.

The two chambers spent the last day of their 60-day session passing a $64 billion supplemental budget, a new transportation package, a bill to allow legislative staff to begin collective bargaining in 2024 and a state student loan program.

"We're coming out of a very tough time with this pandemic and the recovery hasn't been positive for everyone," Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said. "But we do have a lot of progress ahead of us."

The operating budget passed both chambers on party lines.

Lawmakers came into the session with $5 billion more in state revenue than anticipated and $1.2 billion more in COVID-19 relief federal funds that had not yet been spent. The $64 billion supplemental budget passed Thursday makes investments in K-12 education, behavioral health, COVID-19 pandemic recovery, housing and more.

The budget leaves $800 million in reserves for the next two years plus an additional $2.75 billion left in an account set aside to help Washington recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, or a similar emergency.

The budget does not include any tax increases nor does it include any broad tax cuts. Some Democratic tax proposals, including a three-day sales tax holiday around Labor Day weekend and making state fairs and state parks free, did not make it in the final budget.

"People are generally aware that there was a ton of extra money out there and they didn't get any of it," House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, told reporters Thursday.

Gov. Jay Inslee praised lawmakers for their work this session.

"Sixty days ago I asked legislators to take big, bold action, and they delivered big, bold action 60 days later," Inslee said in a news conference following the end of the session.

Inslee's budget that he proposed in December focused on making large investments in housing, salmon and climate. Though some of his big policy proposals didn't make it through, his office said much of his priorities were reflected in the final budget.

On housing, lawmakers approved $50 million to transition people away from living in encampments on public rights-of-way , something Inslee had proposed in his budget.

On climate change and clean energy, Inslee's office said they were disappointed the Legislature did not pass "critical pieces of our path to net-zero emissions," including changing building codes and requiring new buildings to use materials that minimize emissions.

Lawmakers also used their extra cash to make investments into both the transportation and capital budgets, which fund transportation, infrastructure and construction projects across the state.

The $17 billion, 16-year transportation package will fund maintenance, transit and other projects across the state, including a rapid bus route on Division Street in Spokane. The package uses funding from the cap-and-trade program passed last year, federal infrastructure funds and a $2 billion one-time plus $56 million a year transfer from the operating budget.

Inslee's office praised the transportation package passed by the Legislature, calling it a "transformational, once-in-a-generation feat."

Republicans pushed against the package, criticizing the fee increases included in the proposal and claiming they did not have any say in the negotiation of the final package. Republicans wanted to use some of the sales tax money on motor vehicles to pay for part of the package. That proposal was not accepted by Democrats.

Lead Republican on the transportation committee, Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, said he wouldn't vote for the package because of how it came together without Republican input.

Though there were some good things in it, Barkis said his party's priorities were different.

House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said the session was incredibly productive, and Democrats met their goals, including addressing climate change, racial inequity and the COVID-19 recovery.

"We wanted to make sure everyone came out of this budget," Jinkins said. "And that's what you're seeing."

Much of the session also was dominated by tweaking bills passed in previous years, including the long-term care tax and a number of police reform bills.

Legislators worked quickly at the beginning of the session to pass a delay implementation of a long-term care payroll tax that started in January. The 0.58% payroll tax goes toward a program called WA Cares, which provides a benefit of up to $36,500 to those who qualify to use on professional care at home or in a facility, home safety evaluations, equipment and transportation.

The collection of the tax is now delayed until July 2023, giving legislators time to fix the program that many have said is insolvent.

Along with the delay, legislators  made some changes fixes, including allowing more exemptions to the tax for people who live outside of Washington but work in the state and some veterans with a service-connected disability of 70% or higher.

The Legislature also worked quickly to debate some tweaks to police reform bills passed last session. Two proposals received broad support, including one to add more clarity to allow law enforcement officers to respond to mental health calls and one to allow agencies to purchase some non-lethal weapons.

One bill to redefine use of force passed the Legislature, giving law enforcement the ability to use physical force to stop a person from actively fleeing a scene. Many Democrats wanted the definition to include "intentionally and actively" fleeing a scene, but that was taken out in the final version.

Another bill that dealt with vehicular pursuits did not make it out of the Legislature, not making it out of the Senate in time on the last day. It would have allowed officers to engage in vehicle pursuits when there is "reasonable suspicion" that a person has or is committing a violent offense, a nonviolent sex offense, escape or driving under the influence offense and when not pursuing has serious risk of harm to others.

The bill was a priority for Republicans who made fixing police reform bills top of mind this session.