Unlike New Jersey and Maine, Washington did not experience a government shutdown on July 1. In the late hours of June 30, legislators in Olympia came together to pass a new two-year operating budget for our state. We avoided the very real and harmful consequences of a shutdown, which would have included laying off more than 32,000 state employees – from park rangers to community corrections officers.
While I would have preferred passing this budget back in April during the regular legislative session, and I wish Senate Republicans had been willing to sit down at the negotiating table much sooner, this budget puts families first and makes extraordinary investments in our public schools, our communities, and our safety net. Additionally, I am pleased that we were able to keep some very harmful, very regressive cuts out of the budget by raising more than $5 billion in new revenue.
It is significant that this revenue was passed on a bipartisan basis. For many years, Republicans in the state legislature have staunchly refused to entertain the notion of new taxes, even as our population continues to grow and revenue isn’t keeping up with the cost of providing the services that Washingtonians expect and deserve. With this budget, Republicans in the legislature acknowledged that it is not possible to fund our priorities and responsibilities without some new revenue. Together, we invested in a better future for our state.
One of the biggest victories in this new budget is the promise we kept to our state’s 1.1 million school students. We added $7.3 billion to our K-12 public schools over the next four years, which will go toward increasing teacher salaries to help recruit and retain high quality teachers, professional development the budget also supports, class size reduction, more investments in special education and highly capable programs, and transitional bilingual instruction, among other improvements. As the parent of a high school student, I am thrilled that these investments will help ensure that every child receives a quality public school education, regardless of zip code.
The investments in this budget span the entire education continuum. While legislators were required to fully fund K-12 schools with this budget, we also recognized that a quality education begins before kindergarten and continues beyond high school. We expanded the number of preschool slots for children from low-income families by 1,800, helping more children get kindergarten-ready. On the other end of the continuum, we increased the number of state need grants to help nearly 900 more students afford a college education.
We also made big, long overdue investments in areas like public health and mental health. After years of damaging cuts in these areas due to the great recession, we are finally reinvesting in programs that protect health and well-being, particularly for the benifit of the most vulnerable Washingtonians. An additional $12 million is invested in public health programs, and we secured more than $1.5 billion in federal Medicaid waiver dollars – something House Democrats included in their original budget proposal but Senate Republicans did not. It would have been completely foolish to turn this money down, and it will go toward fighting the opioid crisis in our state, as well as toward integrating physical and behavioral health, reducing homeless rates, and increasing support for in-home family caregivers.
For too long, mental health has been stigmatized. That stigma has been overcome with diabetes, cancer, and heart disease. Unfortunately, this has meant disinvestment in mental health treatment, and people not getting the care they need. Our new state budget is proof that we are finally emerging from the shadows of that mindset. We are engaging communities more, building on community supports, and ensuring that caring treatment reaches people in the communities where they live. We are moving away from a system that puts mental health patients in large state institutions, sometimes far away from their families and neighbors. This is an outmoded practice and our state is one of the few that has continued to engage in it.
Our state mental health hospitals – Western State and Eastern State – are transitioning toward admitting and treating mostly forensic commitments – those patients who have been charged or convicted of criminal behaviors related to their mental illness. While there is still more work to do to continue de-stigmatizing mental illness, we took some major steps toward a mental health system that keeps people safe and supports patient recovery.
Finally, the budget fully funds the state employee collective bargaining agreements, and does not reduce employee health benefits. This is crucial to attracting and retaining the high-quality workforce we need to deliver the excellent customer service the public expects.
Many long days and late nights went into getting this budget across the finish line on time, not only for legislators but for staff. Additionally, thousands of people and families were negatively impacted by the prospect of a looming state government shutdown, and that is truly regrettable. This is not the way a state budget should be drafted.
No budget is perfect, but I’m proud of the final outcome. Unlike some states, Washington avoided a government shutdown and has a budget that reflects our values, putting families first.
For those who are interested in a closer examination of the final budget, including details on how much funding each agency and program received, the information is available online at http://leap.leg.wa.gov
Laurie Jinkins represents the 27th Legislative District in Pierce County, which includes East, Downtown, Hilltop, North, Northeast, West Side, and part of Tacoma as well as Ruston and Fife Heights.