The 2014 Legislature adjourned late Thursday night, finishing its 60-day session on time and delivering important pieces of Gov. Jay Inslee’s health care and education agendas to his desk.
The Legislature approved several pieces of legislation and budget items to continue Washington’s successful push to improve quality of health care delivered in the state and that will reduce costs by an estimated $60 million over the next three years.
One will integrate chemical dependency treatment with care provided for people with severe mental illness. The second bill takes a bold first step for better health care purchasing by integrating mental health, community supports like housing and primary care, and by creating price and quality transparency tools that assist consumers and purchasers. The third effort funds Inslee’s Healthiest Next Generation initiative to improve the health of children in Washington.
Dorothy Teeter, director of the state Health Care Authority, praised the Legislature’s health care achievements.
“We have seen unprecedented steps by the Legislature toward a transformed and better integrated Medicaid delivery system that will serve the client as a whole person,” Teeter said. “For too long we have perpetuated a very disjointed view of health in Medicaid that separates the body from the head. Through House Bill 2572 and Senate Bill 6312, the Legislature has adopted the policy framework of the state health care innovation plan and is helping put our health delivery system on a solid path toward better health, better care and lower costs.”
Dr. Tom Hansen, CEO of Seattle Children's Hospital, says the governor’s focus on kids health is important.
“Approximately 30 percent of the children we serve at Seattle Children’s are overweight or obese, and many of them suffer from conditions once seen only in adults. We share the Governor’s commitment to improving the health and wellness of all kids in Washington. I applaud the Governor’s Healthiest Next Generation initiative and its focus on improving child nutrition and child access to physical activity. This initiative will help kids live longer and healthier lives, a result we can all support.”
The Legislature also took action on several important education bills.
Senate Bill 6552 boosts the high school graduation requirement from 20 to 24 credits beginning with the class of 2019. The bill incorporates Inslee’s legislation to provide students new options for fulfilling their math and science requirements to provide more pathways for students with different academic or career goals.
“I want to thank the Legislature for listening to school districts on this issue,” said Dr. Susan Enfield, Superintendent of Highline Public Schools. “The initial investment in funding 24 credits will help prepare students to graduate ready for college, career and citizenship. This law is an example of how schools and state government can work together to develop policy that has a truly meaningful impact on student achievement.”
In higher education, House Bill 2626 establishes a 10-year roadmap to ensure every adult earns a high school diploma and 70 percent of adults earn a post-secondary credential.
And one of the biggest wins of the session was passage of the DREAM Act, a bill that will allow thousands of aspiring young citizens the opportunity to access financial aid for college. When he signed that bill last month surrounded by students and activists who had pushed for the bill for years, Gov. Inslee said it was the best day of his time in office.
Legislators also approved several important budget items including increased mental health services, an additional $2 million for new teacher mentoring, $1 million for the Institute for Protein Design at University of Washington, $750,000 for the Jet Fuels Center at Washington State University, and additional engineering and computer science slots at Central and Eastern Washington universities.
While the session is notable for those important moves in education and health care, it ended with some important work left undone.
House leaders didn’t bring a bill to the floor that would provide a modest boost to Washington’s minimum wage bill, a disappointment in efforts to address income disparity. In his January State of the State address, Inslee acknowledged it would be difficult to get a bill through the Republican-dominated Senate, but had hoped a House vote would help raise the profile of this important issue. Inslee says this remains a priority and that he will continue working on it during the interim.
Meanwhile, the Senate failed to muster a vote on a transportation investment package for badly needed maintenance, freight projects and transit improvements. After more than a year of negotiations, public meetings and hearings, the Senate’s final offer of the 2014 session was further from the middle than where negotiations left off in December.
“The lack of action by the Legislature on a new transportation investment package is putting both safety and commerce at risk,” said Steve Mullin, president of the Washington Roundtable in a recent release highlighting that deficient infrastructure is costing each Washington motorist more than $1,400 per year. “Our state must invest in a comprehensive package that maintains existing infrastructure and finishes projects in important economic corridors.”
There was also not enough done in the final budget to address the state’s constitutional obligation to adequately fund education. While legislators approved about $1 billion in new education funding last year, the state Supreme Court, which has already ruled legislators are underfunding basic education, issued a new order in January that the state was not moving fast enough to meet its own funding timelines and called for “immediate, concrete action … not simply promises.”
In response to the court order, Inslee proposed closing tax loopholes to make another $200 million investment toward meeting the court-mandated (McCleary) basic education costs related to supplies and teacher salaries. He called on legislators to follow suit and do the same.
Senate majority leaders immediately responded dismissively saying “No... We already addressed the money issues...” House and Senate Democrats meanwhile worked to identify lower priority tax breaks they could close to fund education. Ultimately, the supplemental budget passed by the Legislature includes an a modest $58 million more for schools.
“I appreciate that we took at least a small step forward, but given how big our challenge is, it’s very disappointing the Legislature did not take the court or our obligation to our children more seriously, nor did they include a long overdue cost-of-living adjustment for our teachers,” said Inslee. “We’re going to be faced with some very difficult choices next year. I hope Senate majority leaders next year will be more committed to dealing with the very real need to direct additional resources for basic education.”
Another disappointment was the failure of a compromise bill to preserve Washington’s No Child Left Behind waiver and the accompanying $38 million that districts currently use to support struggling students.
“This was a bittersweet session for our children,” said Inslee. “While we took a few good steps forward in some areas, politics got in the way of many of the difficult but pragmatic and practical decisions we needed to make.”
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