After 90 nearly consecutive days of activity in the Washington State Legislature, lawmakers finally came to an agreement early Wednesday morning that led to the passage of a balanced, sustainable state budget. The reforms our Senate bipartisan coalition was able to get into the final version of the budget made the grueling extra effort worthwhile.
With these reforms, we all but ensure that we won’t be back here in January facing another billion-dollar budget deficit. We could have settled for less just to get out of Olympia a month ago, but in the end it would have left state taxpayers with a perennial budget deficit. The Senate coalition was steadfast in its belief that enough was enough, and fortunately we were able to stick to our guns on this one.
The reforms include:
- Senate Bill 6378: Public employees hired as of May 2013 who enroll in the Public Employees Retirement System, Teachers Retirement System or School Employees Retirement System may retire before age 65, after 30 years of service, with a pension that is reduced 5 percent for each year of retirement before age 65. In other words, a future 30-year employee who retires at age 55 would receive a 50 percent monthly benefit; current state employees in the same position would receive an 80 percent monthly benefit. The state’s pension system is among the biggest cost-drivers in state government; this reform is expected to save public employers and taxpayers approximately $1.3 billion over the next 25 years.
- Senate Bill 5940: Many public-school teachers and classified staff are forced to purchase their health-care insurance from a single carrier, through their school districts, and that lack of choice is a factor in why the premiums for family level coverage have become unaffordable for some. SB 5940 would require districts to disclose expenses, reserves, fees, premium costs and so on; allow open contracting; greater equity between the cost of coverage for an individual and the cost of family coverage; and give employees access to high-deductible health plans and health savings accounts. Districts that don’t comply with these standards by December 2015 would be forced to join the insurance pool to which general-government employees have belonged for many years (administered by the Public Employees Benefit Board).
- Senate Bill 6636: The Legislature is good at making changes in the budget without looking at what those changes will mean in later budget cycles. SB 6636 would require budgets to balance across four years, meaning the current two-year cycle plus the next two years, before they are adopted. This requirement, thought to be the first of its kind in the nation, will force legislators to consider the long-term costs that go with their spending choices, and reduce the chance that one biennium’s budget will lead to a big deficit in the next biennium.
Including the special session held late last year to deal with the state budget, the regular 2012 60-day session, the first 2012 30-day special session, and the barely-one-day second 2012 special session, lawmakers have spent a total of 108 days in Olympia to reach this historic budget agreement.