Senate capital budget would provide unprecedented support for broadband

Schools, behavioral-health services and housing affordability are also big winners in Senate plan

Today the Senate released a bipartisan capital budget plan that would dedicate an unprecedented $490 million toward expansion of broadband, especially in rural areas, along with $406 million toward behavioral-health services and $315 million for affordable housing – three areas identified as priorities in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Proposed Substitute Senate Bill (PSSB) 5083 would increase projected bond capacity for the 2021-23 biennium to $3.968 billion and would make total appropriations of $6.234 billion. It would not raid the rainy-day fund and would retain $50.8 million in bond capacity for a 2022 supplemental capital budget.

Sen. Jim Honeyford, the Republican capital budget lead, is one of the chief architects of the proposal, which includes funding capital assets like school-building construction and mental-health facilities.

“This budget proposal is designed to meet many of the pressing needs that have perhaps always existed, but have been highlighted by the pandemic,” said Honeyford, R-Sunnyside. “One of my top priorities this year has been addressing the broadband needs of our communities – especially those in rural areas. Everything from e-commerce and education to telemedicine and precision farming has come to rely on equitable access to broadband. This budget takes extraordinary steps to make funds available to address this problem head-on.”

The funding for broadband builds on Substitute Senate Bill 5357, Honeyford’s legislation to create a competitive-grant program called the Broadband Investment Acceleration Program in the Statewide Broadband Office. Grants made through the program would match funds required to participate in federal broadband-infrastructure programs, with priority given to projects in unserved, rural areas.

“The Broadband Investment Acceleration Program, combined with the funding provided in the Senate capital budget proposal, would go a long way toward addressing a fundamental issue of equity,” Honeyford explained. “Children in poor and rural areas have the same right to access school and library services as children in urban areas. Small businesses in rural communities need to be able to engage in e-commerce – especially during a shutdown of in-person businesses – just as much as those large companies located in big cities. Sick and elderly patients and those dealing with the depression and anxiety of isolation during a pandemic need to be able to access telemedicine and tele-counseling, no matter where in the state they may live.

“This budget will help address these equity issues and help bring our unserved, rural communities the resources they so desperately need.”

In addition to broadband, the capital budget prioritizes school construction and projects that focus on helping meet the state’s mental-health needs, increasing affordable housing, mitigating the damage of environmental disasters and preserving and developing existing properties – all while leaving capacity in the budget to address unforeseen future needs.

Honeyford noted that he was particularly happy about the inclusion of $8 million for fair health and safety grants, and the exclusion of any funds for permanent fencing around the Capitol building.

“We want to increase access to the legislative process, not put up some permanent fort around the people’s house,” said Honeyford.

The 2021-23 capital budget also would provide $907.4 million in bond proceeds and $40.2 million in other funds for K-12 school construction and modernization. Major investments include:

  • $837.3 million for the School Construction Assistance Program (SCAP), with $781.7 million dedicated to fund 36 construction and renovation projects in 29 school districts;
  • $47.2 million for modernization grants to small school districts;
  • $14.2 million for skills centers;
  • $10.7 million to the distressed schools grants program for classroom additions at two schools in Seattle, a school-based health center at Spanaway Middle School, and the Healthy Schools pilot program to reduce exposure to air pollution and improve air quality in schools;
  • $10.0 million to the school district health and safety grants program to address health and safety issues, equal access and emergency repairs; and,
  • $51.6 million for construction of new education facilities for those with disabilities.

The 2021-23 capital budget includes $1.51 billion in total appropriations and alternative financing authority for higher education facilities, including $1.06 billion of state bond proceeds. Of the total spending authority, $963 million is provided for the four-year institutions and $551 million for the community and technical college system.

“This budget continues the Legislature’s commitment to building new schools and new classrooms around the state in both urban and rural areas,” said Honeyford. “At the same time, it adds critical investments to our four-year universities and in our community and technical college system. This is a student-oriented budget that attempts to address students’ needs for safe, healthy school buildings, access to critical broadband, and facilities needed to address any behavioral concerns.”

Affordable housing loans and grants is another area of emphasis. The budget would provide $315 million for affordable housing projects, including $205 million for grants and loans through the Housing Trust Fund, $5 million for landlord mitigation, and $5 million for rural rehabilitation loans.

Other highlights of the Senate capital budget proposal include:

  • $209 million for local and community projects;
  • $65 million for clean energy, energy retrofits, and weatherization;
  • $121 million for developmental disability services;
  • $15 million to retrofit a HVAC system to effectively cool the skilled nursing facility building at the Washington Veterans Home in Port Orchard;
  • $537 for water quality and supply programs, including:
    • $70 million for the Chehalis Basin Strategy
    • $45 million for the Columbia River Water Supply Development Program
    • $42 million for the Yakima River Basin Water Supply
    • $40 million for the Streamflow Restoration Program;
  • $192 million for toxics cleanup and prevention and stormwater;
  • $86 million for state parks;
  • $389 million for recreation, conservation, and salmon recovery; and
  • $26 million for wildfire and forest health.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the proposal later today.