Our Voice: Good and bad from Olympia as 2013 Legislature adjourns

July 7, 2013 

This year's Legislature reminds us of the stereotypical high school underachiever, turning in good work but late and incomplete.

The $33.5 billion spending plan for the 2013-14 biennium was approved after lawmakers failed to complete a budget during the regular special session and the first special session.

Only during double-overtime was the Legislature able to avert a government shutdown just hours before it was set to take effect. We're not sure how much money state agencies spent on plans for suspending their operations, but we know it was a wasted effort that could have been avoided by an earlier budget agreement.

But as painful as it was to watch the Legislature mired in partisan gridlock reminiscent of the other Washington, at the last minute, state lawmakers accomplished something that appears impossible for Congress -- a bipartisan compromise.

The Democratically-controlled House couldn't advance its plans for tax increases. Conservatives in the Senate had an opportunity to rail against Obamacare but couldn't stop an expansion of Medicaid that comes with it.

But neither side decided that getting what they want was more important than the interests of the people who sent them to Olympia.

The Legislature's give and take resulted in some big wins for constituents. Education tops the list of winners -- with an additional $1 billion for the K-12 system. True, lawmakers didn't have much choice because they're under a state Supreme Court mandate to fully fund basic education.

But even so, it is encouraging to see the Legislature make a billion-dollar down payment on fulfilling that obligation. It isn't difficult to imagine alternative scenarios.

No court decision forced the lawmakers to stop draining the state's higher education system as a means to balance the state's operating budget. The budget includes 12 percent increase for higher education, including financial aid to students of limited means.

As a result, undergraduate students will start the new school year without a steep tuition increase for the first time since 1986.

Those are smart investments in Washington's economic future. A good education system is paramount to attracting and keeping businesses.

The Legislature made some important investments in the Mid-Columbia as well. The capital budget, approved even later than the operating budget, includes $5.4 million for a new Delta High School, the final piece needed to start construction of the STEM school.

Legislators also approved a $5 million, no-interest loan to help the Kennewick Irrigation District complete a $20.2 million project to bring Yakima River water to prime grape-growing land on Red Mountain.

Officials hope to have river water flowing to all 1,785 acres in the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area between Richland and Benton City by summer 2014 --- about a year earlier than originally expected.

The area has an international reputation for the quality of its grapes and irrigating more land will mean more money for our region. But it's not really a state investment -- just a loan. Landowners will pay the full cost of the project. It still is an important development for the Tri-Cities.

So, nice work as far as it goes, but the legislative Class of 2013 didn't complete its work.

Left undone was a $10 billion transportation package that drew broad support from the state's business leaders and the ire of the anti-tax crowd because it called for a 101/2-cent increase in the gas tax.

The House passed the measure. The Senate didn't take it up.

Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom told the Seattle Times he and his colleagues plan to work during the coming months to develop a proposal that lawmakers could consider next year.

It's good they plan to keep at it, but the delay will increase the cost of maintaining and improving our state's transportation system. The tax will hurt, especially in Eastern Washington, where we often have to drive long distances to get anywhere.

But the cost of inaction will be even higher. Good roads are vital to Washington's trade-dependent economy.

All in all, an A for effort but only partial credit earned while the hard work of governing remains undone.

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