By Sen. Brad Hawkins
The Legislature recently completed its hybrid session in Olympia on April 25 as scheduled. It consisted primarily of Zoom meetings and conference calls with some work completed in-person.
It was a busy time for me as I continued as the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee’s ranking member. This session was particularly busy for education committee leaders due to the school issues surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. I worked on many COVID-related education issues, including a statewide focus on school employee vaccinations and learning recovery. I also sponsored a few individual bills and budget requests, many of which were approved.
In the end, the Legislature approved all three budgets for the 2021-23 biennium and authorized many federal stimulus dollars. The operating budget ($59.2 billion), transportation budget ($11.8 billion), and capital budget ($6.3 billion) were finalized on the final days of session after much negotiation. I voted for the transportation budget and capital budget, but I voted against the final operating budget.
The operating budget funds the day-to-day operations of the state, including early learning, K-12 education, higher education, health and human services, criminal justice, natural resources, courts and other areas. For the 2021-2023 biennium, the House and Senate majorities significantly increased the size of the operating budget to a record $59.2 billion.
As with any budget or other large-scale legislation, there are always things to like and things not to like. However, I could not support the broad scope of spending in the final budget and voted against it. Despite the COVID pandemic, state revenues are still projected to be positive, with more dollars flowing into the state than what was projected earlier in the pandemic. Unfortunately, the final budget spends all of this revenue in the coming years and also fully exhausts the state’s $2 billion Budget Stabilization Account, also known as our rainy-day fund.
In another unnecessary move, the Legislature approved a new tax on capital gains income to raise more revenue for expanded programs. I have major concerns about the sustainability of this budget. I have major concerns about what the state will do if future revenues decline.
The transportation budget funds the construction and maintenance of the state transportation system, including the maintenance and preservation of roads, bridges, and ferries. This budget also funds the state agencies and commissions that serve our transportation system, including the Washington State Patrol, Department of Licensing, Department of Transportation, Washington Traffic Safety Commission, County Road Administration Board, Transportation Improvement Board, Transportation Commission, and Freight Mobility Strategic Investment Board.
The budget also funds numerous previously approved road projects based on their construction schedules. Due to the lack of driving during the COVID pandemic, much of the gas tax and other revenues that the transportation budget depends upon was significantly less than in past years. Additionally, a Supreme Court case involving fish-blocking transportation culverts has forced the state to invest billions of dollars to fix them. The combined loss in transportation revenues as well as the increase in fish passage restoration projects has created a strain on the overall system.
This resulted in a lean 2021-23 transportation budget with few new additions. I am pleased that a fast-charging and hydrogen fueling station in the Wenatchee Valley was funded based upon an amendment I sponsored in the Senate Transportation Committee. The big news of the session on transportation is that none of the gas tax/new revenue investment proposals passed. However, there is ongoing speculation that Gov. Inslee could call the Legislature back into a special session in the fall in an attempt to advance new revenue ideas for additional transportation projects.
The state capital budget funds the construction and maintenance of state buildings, public school matching grants, higher education facilities, public lands, parks and other assets. In recent years, the 12th District team has been able to generate big wins for our region through this budget, including the replacement of key infrastructure following tragic wildfires, the expansion of outdoor recreation opportunities that improve our economy and quality of life, and enhancements to key community response systems.
Our legislative team, with the help of Representative Steele, who helps negotiate the capital budget, has been able to successfully secure many of our regional priorities, including the Wells Hall replacement for Wenatchee Valley College, Chelan County Emergency Operations Center, Twisp Civic Building, Winthrop Library, Wenatchee Valley Museum and Cultural Center, Wenatchi Landing sewer extension, Saddle Rock soil remediation, and a variety of recreation and park facility improvements.
The 2021-23 capital budget was a success for our district as well, most notably including the Nason Ridge Community Forest, Chelan Airport water extension, small-school modernization grants, Wenatchee City Pool renovation, Winthrop Ice Rink support, Leavenworth Ski Hill restrooms, Soap Lake City Hall repairs, North Central Washington Libraries funding, and other facility or infrastructure investments.
The session included a variety of other legislation, some of which is new to our state. I look forward to updating you on those changes in the weeks and months ahead.
Sen. Brad Hawkins represents the 12th District, which includes the Methow Valley.