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Government and Politics
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

House Democrats hope to head off mass evictions with more than $1B spending in next state budget

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WSDOT - tinyurl.com/yddspl8b
Washington's Capitol campus as viewed from the air. On Friday, Washington House Democrats unveiled their proposed budget for the 2021-23 biennium.

Washington House Democrats on Friday unveiled a proposed two-year state budget that seeks, among other things, to head off a wave of mass evictions once the state’s eviction moratorium expires.

“Our goal is to wipe the slate clean for landlords and tenants,” said state Rep. Nicole Macri, a vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Macri said the state’s Department of Commerce has projected Washington renters will be behind on rent to the tune of $1.3 billion if it takes until March 2023 for a full economic recovery. The House budget, building on previous rent relief, would devote more than a $1 billion to address that looming so-called “eviction cliff.” Gov. Jay Inslee recently extended the eviction moratorium until June 30.

Overall, House Democrats propose to spend about $58 billion in state dollars over the next two years. That’s a hair shy of the roughly $59 billion in spending Senate Democrats proposed in their budget rollout on Thursday. Both budgets represent a jump in spending over the current biennial budget of about $53 billion.

"The 'Washington Recovery Budget' represents the end of austerity budgets and the harmful idea that people should pick themselves up and work harder just to survive," said Appropriations Vice Chair Rep. Mia Gregerson in a statement. 

Like their counterparts in the Senate, House Democrats would tap the state’s “rainy day” fund and adopt a new state capital gains tax on gains over $250,000 from the sale of such things as stocks and bonds. The tax is aimed at the state’s wealthiest residents.

The proceeds from the tax would go to fund expanded early learning and child care, as well as tax relief for lower-income families. While Democrats are banking the money from the capital gains tax in their budgets, those revenues are not a sure thing. Once signed into law, the tax is likely to face legal challenges and could be subject to a voter referendum.

In many respects the House and Senate budgets largely mirror each other. They put billions in federal funds into emergency grants for schools and to fund the ongoing public health response to the pandemic. The also devote money to replenish the state’s Immigrant Relief Fund for undocumented residents who don’t qualify for federal stimulus checks. Both budgets also fund wildfire prevention and forest health measures.

But in other ways, there are notable differences. For instance, the House budget would fund five extra school days next year to help address student learning loss due to the pandemic.

Other spending priorities in the House budget include:

  • $965 million for disaster recovery
  • $400 million in federal funds for child care stabilization grants
  • $268 million to fund the Working Families Tax Credit
  • $250 million in federal business assistances grants
  • $233 million to cancel 24 days of state employee furloughs
  • $112 million to expand access to community mental health treatment and substance use disorder services and treatment
  • $76 million to fund a new 988 crisis phone line as an alternative to 911
  • $68 million to help counties cover the cost of resentencing defendants and refunding court fines as a result of the recent Blake v. Washington decision by the Washington Supreme Court that found the state’s drug possession law unconstitutional
  • $44 million to increase Medicaid reimbursement rates to health care providers by 15 to 21 percent
  • $20 million to fund a new independent office to investigate police use of deadly force

Minority Republicans previously released their own budget proposals. They too proposed to spend more money in the next biennium, but not nearly as much as Democrats are contemplating. Republicans have also fiercely criticized the capital gains tax as unnecessary and unconstitutional.

In other areas, however, there is bipartisan agreement. For instance, both parties support funding the state's Working Families Tax Credit which would provide lower-income families with a rebate on the sales and use tax they pay. The credit has been on the books for more than a decade, but was never funded.

Now that both House and Senate operating budgets have been released, the two sides will work to find agreement on a final spending plan.

The last day of the legislative session is April 25.