by Doug Nadvornick & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & F & lt;/span & rom an observer's standpoint, this year's session of the Washington legislature has been dryer than a bucket of chalk.
As legislators pass the halfway point of their 2007 session, things have been so sedate that the biggest controversy has been whether to replace Seattle's aging downtown Alaskan Way viaduct with a tunnel or with another elevated freeway. (Important there; not so much here.)
Yes, it's a budget year, which often brings some juicy battles, but money's abundant (a projected $2 billion surplus) and even higher education officials who feel their institutions have been shortchanged in recent years seem content. "This is as good a governor's budget as we've seen in the last 15 years," says retiring Washington State University President V. Lane Rawlins.
The lawmakers' self-imposed deadlines are now forcing them to act on legislation. This week, members battled to keep their bills alive by getting them passed out of committee before yesterday's deadline. Those that didn't pass are likely dead for the year.
A few Spokane area legislators have already celebrated victories. Rep. David Buri (R-Colfax) is praising the state's decision last month to purchase, for $5.6 million, a rail line that runs between Cheney and Coulee City, with spur lines running to the Palouse.
"This gives our farmers a third option [along with roads and rivers] to ship their crops," says Buri. "The state will own [the line] and hire someone to run it for them."
Rep. Don Barlow (D-Spokane) was only a month into his first term when Gov. Christine Gregoire signed into law his first bill, which would allow the state to make the co-payments for low-income Medicare prescription drug recipients.
Barlow is also the prime sponsor of a bill that would allow the state to build a veterans' cemetery on the West Plains. The nearest veterans' cemeteries, both state and federal, are in western Washington.
The House unanimously approved Barlow's bill and sent it to the Senate. A companion Senate bill, sponsored by Chris Marr (D-Spokane), also passed its chamber unanimously and is now in the House.
"There had been talk of building a federal military cemetery in Eastern Washington, but because there's not enough population, that's not going to happen," says Marr. Still, the VA will pay most of the cost for the state cemetery. The governor has put nearly $8 million into her capital budget for the project. The feds will reimburse the state for all but $450,000 after the cemetery opens.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & M & lt;/span & uch of the legislative maneuvering during the next two months will focus on funding. The governor filed her budget with lawmakers in January. House and Senate leaders will release their respective proposals in a few weeks, setting up negotiations that will determine how state money will be distributed for the next two years.
A big chunk will be steered to Spokane's North-South Corridor. The governor proposes to spend $140 million in the next biennium -- not nearly enough to finish the freeway, but enough to keep the project moving.
"We've got right-of-way to buy and design work to do," says state Department of Transportation spokesman Al Gilson. "We'll take what money we've got and build in small increments."
House and Senate negotiators may choose to adjust the $140 million figure, perhaps upward. "There's money there because they haven't started building the Seattle viaduct yet," says Rep. Alex Wood (D-Spokane).
By the time it's completed, the North-South freeway is projected to cost more than $3 billion.
The governor also proposes to spend several million dollars on state government facilities around Spokane, including a new Fish and Wildlife Department office and upgrades at several Eastern State Hospital facilities in Medical Lake.
Leaders of Spokane-area colleges and universities are also keeping their eye on Olympia. Eastern Washington University and both community colleges each have several building projects that are funded in the governor's budget.
That budget also includes $58 million for Washington State University for a new biosciences building on the Pullman campus. WSU and EWU officials are also expecting $9.5 million to bring first-year University of Washington medical and dental school students to Spokane.
"We have the buildings we need [in Spokane], now we're asking for money for programs," says WSU's Rawlins. "That would allow us to hire more faculty here, who would both teach and do research."
Local government and business officials are also asking lawmakers to help Spokane develop its growing biomedical industry by allowing the county to create a "health science and services authority" that could borrow money to grant to a local organization like Spokane's Institute for Systems Medicine. The institute is looking for a regular funding source to help it lure some of the world's best researchers to Spokane.
One of the emerging battles in Olympia focuses on state funding for K-12 education.
Several groups, from school districts to teachers' unions, have sued the state, arguing the legislature doesn't allocate enough money to fully fund schools.
"For 30 years, we've been required to offer six instructional periods a day, but the state only pays us for five," says Spokane Superintendent Brian Benzel. "We have to cover the gap out of our local levy money ... And in special education, we serve 800 more children with special needs than the state pays us for. We cover them because it's the right thing to do and because it's the law."
The district has cut optional programs for the last few years to free money for core programs. This year it faces a $10.5 million deficit, in part because of "unfunded mandates" from the state, Benzel says. District officials will soon announce how they propose to eliminate the shortfall. Benzel says more money for "basic education" would help.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & mong the others in Spokane who are keeping their eye on Olympia are homeless advocates, who were buoyed two years ago when lawmakers created a new funding source: a $10 document-recording fee for real estate and other transactions. The surcharge raised more than $12 million last year for homeless and low-income housing programs around the state, including $650,000 in Spokane.
Advocates like Sheila Morley from the Spokane Valley Community Center and Spokane Homeless Coalition were excited when Rep. Mike Miloscia (D-Seattle) proposed to add another $10 to the surcharge, but lawmakers stripped that from the bill.
"Obviously we would prefer that the bill go through with the recording fee," says Morley. It helps agencies "fill in the gaps and fund services that can't receive funding from sources ... There is a great need for this type of funding if the community is going to reduce homelessness by 50 percent."