OLYMPIA — The Legislature adjourned today after passing a balanced budget plan that will provide property tax relief while leaving a healthy reserve fund for future emergencies such as wildfires or unexpected economic downturns.
Closer to home, a proviso in the budget negotiated by Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Dungeness, will help preserve rural hospitals in Grays Harbor and Clallam counties.
“Every family needs access to health care, and that means a hospital within driving distance,” said Tharinger, who helped negotiate language in the operating budget to help rural hospitals. Tharinger’s proviso allocates $1.2 million in state funds and $2.3 million in federal matching funds to boost the rates paid to the Olympic Medical Center and Grays Harbor Community Hospital.
“These much needed funds will help continued operations at these hospitals so families in the area can continue relying on preventive health care services, as well as life-saving procedures and treatments,” said Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen.
The budget also includes language to set up and fund a work group to take a hard look at ways to restructure and strengthen the rural health care system in Washington state.
“I’m especially proud of legislation to help fund scholarships in high-skill, high-pay, high-demand fields out in timber and farm country,” said Rep. Mike Chapman, D-Port Angeles. “One year of higher education is the difference between a minimum wage job and a chance at a middle-class career with the kind of job that you can raise a family on.”
A separate bill, House Bill 2408, will require health carriers to offer qualified health plans (QHPs) in counties where they offer a health plan approved by the School Employees’ Benefits Board or the Public Employees’ Benefits Board. Until Dec. 31, 2019, the bill also allows someone to purchase a health plan through the Washington State Health Insurance Pool at a reduced rate if there are no available QHPs in their county of residence but within the same geographic rating area. This will ensure access to health care coverage in “bare” counties where health carriers do not offer plans.
With Democrats controlling both the House and Senate for the first time in five years, the Legislature finished on time and avoided the special legislative sessions that had become the norm and dragged into July last year, pushing the state to the brink of a government shutdown.
The local lawmakers also teamed up on efforts to create more family-wage jobs in rural areas by: directing the state to assess thousands of acres of trust lands that could be harvested without harming endangered species; requiring the state to explore ways to make common-sense land swaps to boost the timber industry; and creating a stronger market for wood products by updating the building code to include cross-laminated lumber.
“When Senate Democrats took over the majority last fall, we wanted to show how the Legislature can function when government isn’t divided,” said Sen. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim. “Our priority the first two weeks was to pass the capital construction budget and resolve the Hirst water issues left over from last year, and from there we just kept our feet on the gas pedal.”
The Hirst legislation allows landowners the limited use of new wells while local working groups develop plans to address water usage over the next 20 years.
After passing the 2017 capital construction budget that provides the largest-ever investment in K-12 school construction, 19,000 jobs and badly needed infrastructure projects across the state, Democrats passed a landmark number of bills — most with strong bipartisan support — that had been blocked from consideration by the Senate’s former Republican leadership.
“We insisted on good-faith negotiations from all corners, and focused on legislation that put people first,” Van De Wege said. “We refused to let the partisan politics of recent sessions become the new normal. We’ll leave that stuff to the other Washington.”
The bills passed this year move the state forward in numerous ways:
- A bipartisan budget that invests in education, mental health and jobs as well as the final piece of funding to satisfy McCleary, the state’s constitutional obligation to amply fund K-12 education. The budget includes a $2.4 billion reserve, the largest in state history, as a hedge against an economic recession.
- A statewide property tax cut, effective in 2019, to give households relief from the Republican Property Tax of 2017.
- The phasing out of Atlantic salmon net pen farms that threaten the health of our water and native finfish populations such as salmon.
- The addition of domestic violence harassment to the list of conditions that prevent people from being able to buy a firearm.
- Legislation to allow anyone struggling with mental illness to place themselves on a firearms do-not-purchase list. Second and third bills awaiting concurrence in the Senate.
- Legislation to help close the wage gap between men and women in our state by offering protections for workers who are paid less, or are offered lesser career advancement opportunities on the basis of gender.
- Net Neutrality, to protect Washington households from internet providers who would slow down or reduce download speeds.
- Consumer protection from unfair fees charged by financial institutions to freeze and unfreeze credit accounts when information is breached as in the notorious Equifax debacle.
- The Reproductive Parity Act to make sure women have the option of choosing the healthcare choices that are best for them and their families.
- Separate bills requiring health care providers to cover the cost of 3-D mammograms and requiring doctors to inform and assist patients who have high breast density, to better detect early signs of breast cancer.
- A requirement that all health plans sold in Washington state cover the same preventive services required by federal law in existence as of Dec. 31, 2016, such as disease screening and contraception — even if the Trump administration rolls services back at the federal level.
“When the other Washington is stripping away health care, it’s more important than ever for this Washington to take steps to protect people’s access to critical services such as disease screening and reproductive care,” Tharinger said. “A person’s ability to access basic health care should be non-negotiable.”
Other passed bills include:
- The Student Loan Bill of Rights, to protect college students from fraudulent and predatory practices by lenders that saddle students with spiraling debt.
- A prohibition on the sale of firefighting foam that contains chemicals deadly to people and destructive to the environment, effective July of 2020. The chemicals have been found in drinking water from wells and can be particularly harmful to pregnant women and young children, as these chemicals can disrupt the endocrine system and impede fetal development.
- Expanded access to Democracy on several fronts by passing The DISCLOSE Act to expose hidden money in elections; same-day voter registration, automatic voter registration, and voter pre-registration; and The Washington Voting Rights Act to provide representation to disenfranchised voters.
- A prohibition on so-called conversion therapy, the practice of applying physical and mental discomfort to try to force LGBTQ minors to conform to a gender identity other than which feels appropriate for who they are.
- Expansion of Breakfast after the Bell, a program that has been shown to improve student performance by making sure kids start the school day able to concentrate on their classes instead of grumbling stomachs.
- The Salish Sea Protection Act, to expand funding for oil spill prevention and response, to update response plans, and to research and make recommendations for escort and rescue tugs for vessels carrying large quantities of oil across the Salish Sea.
- Efforts to reduce recidivism by increasing access to evidence-based rehabilitative services for certain youth who would otherwise be tried and sentenced as adults, and more discretion to prosecutors to divert less serious cases so youth can access the services and help they need to get back on track.
- The Dream Act 2.0, to expand access to higher education for students who are DACA recipients.
- A change in law to limit the disclosure of people’s religious affiliations to protect them from federal authorities who would use the information to arrest or apprehend law-abiding Washingtonians.
- A update in law to support agricultural fairs, youth shows, and exhibitions by broadening the range of uses for funds allocated by the state Fair Fund and to preserve a fair’s ability to apply for funds if a natural disaster prevents the holding of that fair in a particular year.
Lastly, a proviso negotiated in the budget by Blake commits funds to increase salmon production to help feed whales — the remaining 75 in area waters are struggling to find enough food to survive — and boost the local economy.
“This was the most intense, productive session I have ever been a part of,” Blake said. “I feel our communities have been well served and I look forward to continuing this momentum when we return to Olympia next year for the 2019 session. These days our middle-class households need all the help they can get, and it’s our job to deliver it.”