After a long session, the 2005 Legis-lature has adjourned. Despite the seri-ous challenge of a $1.6-billion revenue shortfall, and want-ing to avoid a general tax increase, we had one of the most productive sessions in recent mem-ory. We made critical investments in our schools and universities, in health care for more of our population, in our transportation infrastructure and in a stronger safety net for those in need, while shielding critical public services from cuts - and without a general tax increase. Some highlights:
Initiative 728 for reduced class sizes and Initiative 732 for teacher cost-of-living adjustments - both voter-approved by vast super-majorities in 2003 - have gone un-funded for two years. This year, the Legislature funded them. We also funded the first comprehensive review of the state's early learning, K-12 and higher education system in 25 years. We strengthened the special-education safety net and expanded early-learning programs as well as the Learning Assistance program designed to help struggling students. The Legislature also passed a bill I sponsored broadening school districts' ability to ascertain instances of sexual misconduct in a potential employee's history, even when appli-cants are coming from out of state.
The Legislature boosted the number of students eligible for a State Need Grant (a family of four with an income of $43,000 may now qualify, as compared to $36,500 previously) and added funding for nearly 8,000 new enrollments to help accommodate the demand from the burgeoning college-age population. We strengthened our state's Guaranteed Education Tuition (GET) program. We expanded access to baccalaureate degree programs by allowing branch campuses to offer four-year degree programs. I sponsored that legislation, as well as a measure to provide pay equity for part-time faculty at commu-nity colleges, another measure that will review and update compensation packages and conditions of employment for all part-time faculty, and a measure that will require higher-education institutions to develop their own policies regarding on-campus marketing of student credit cards.
Health and long-term care
We set in motion a plan to ensure that all low-income children in our state have health-care coverage by 2010. Also, we successfully maintained current Medicaid eligibility and standards, kept the Basic Health Plan at 100,000 enrollees and held the line on funding for community clinics.
To reduce the cost of prescription drugs, we expanded the state's existing prescription drug program by allowing uninsured Washingtonians, as well as private businesses and labor unions, to join the program and become eligible for wholesale discounts. We also passed a bill allowing residents to purchase medi-cines imported from Canada and other countries at their local pharmacies; under the bill, the state Board of Pharmacy will submit a waiver to the federal Food and Drug Administration to authorize the state to license whole-salers in Canada and elsewhere.
In the area of long-term care, we began the full phase-out of the nursing home per-patient-per-day bed tax and increased wages for individual providers and agency workers caring for the elderly and disabled.
With the state's loss of $82 million in federal Medicaid, 2005 was shaping up as one of the worst years for Washington's mental health system in a long time. The Legislature managed to backfill these lost federal funds in full, and also passed landmark legislation to achieve parity for mental health coverage in health insurance plans, and to expand and integrate treatment for mental health and chemical dependency.
The historic 16-year transportation spending plan passed by the Legis-lature funds more than 300 highway, bridge and intersection improvement projects in every county in the state, including $2 billion for the Alaskan Way Viaduct, $500 million for the 520 bridge and $992 million for Interstate 405. The plan also funds freight rail, passenger rail, bus service, park-and-ride lots and other proven strategies that take vehicles off the road.
The projects are financed through a 9.5-cent, phased-in increase in the gas tax over four years, with a 3-cent increase in July 2005, a 3-cent increase in July 2006, a 2-cent increase in July 2007 and a 1.5-cent increase in July of 2008.
Protecting children and the vulnerable
Several significant measures I spon-sored to provide enhanced protections for children and other vulnerable members of our society were approved. To address the problem of child sexual abuse by members of the clergy, we broadened the list of mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse to include supervisors in nonprofit and for-profit organizations and supervisors of members of the clergy.
To address the problem of "groomers" - adults who use their supervisory positions to gain the trust of minors and exploit that trust by pursuing inappropriate sexual relationships - we broadened the law against sexual misconduct with a minor to include private coaches, mentors or foster parents.
We also passed a measure requir-ing the Washington State Patrol to include all convictions data in all non-criminal justice in background check requests, ensuring that information relevant to whether someone has the appropriate character and fitness for a particular job or volunteer position is more accurate.
Other protective legislation of mine to pass into law includes:
* a measure to encourage schools, parks, fields, youth camps, daycare and childcare centers to test for soils contaminants by providing financial and technical assistance for testing costs and logistics;
* another measure making childcare licensing status available to parents and requiring licensed home daycare pro-viders to have liability insurance or, if not, to inform parents they do not;
* a requirement for landlords to begin providing tenants with informa-tion from the Department of Health on the health hazards associated with indoor mold and steps that can be taken to minimize its growth; and
* a measure increasing access to social and health services for victims of human trafficking.
Improving jobs and the economy
Significant legislation originated from the newly created Senate Labor, Commerce, Research & Development Committee, which I chair. This includes a measure requiring that at least 15 percent of labor hours on public-works projects valued at $1 million or more be performed by apprentices. Another measure, sup-ported publicly by Boeing and pri-vately by many business leaders, will provide fairer unemployment bene-fits for seasonal workers without raising business taxes. As chair, I worked with the business and labor communities to reach consensus on creating a task force to study the out-sourcing of state contracts and its impact on state jobs and the economy.
Additionally, the Legislature provided state employees with a 3.2 percent COLA on July 1, 2005, and a 1.6 percent COLA on July 1, 2006 - their first pay increase in five years - and established a childcare-worker career and wage ladder in licensed childcare facilities. We made significant efforts to promote research for which our state is already regarded as a national leader: I co-sponsored legislation that creates the billion-dollar Life Sciences Discovery Fund to invest in biomedical and bioscience research using interest from the 1998 tobacco settle-ment. Also, I prime-sponsored a mea-sure to encourage the ethical transfer of technology between research institutions and commercial industries so that research products and inventions can get to the marketplace, and another measure to establish a Washington State Academy of Sciences to advise the governor or the Legislature on matters of science, technology and medicine.
Other high points
To protect the rights of law-abiding voters and restore public trust in our election system, the Legislature passed major election-reform bills. To restore public trust in state government, we passed a bill that increases government accountability by requiring independent performance reviews of all state agencies, guarantees citizen input by establishing a Citizen Advisory Board and develops an audit schedule in order to identify weak areas and improve efficiency.
Some of the progressive environmental measures to pass into law this year included the adoption of strict "California-style" car emissions stan-dards to improve public health, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and give consumers more options when they purchase vehicles, and the re-quirement that public buildings begin meeting "green building" standards.
We could not have continued just to make cuts to our state budget and still have expected to have a healthy citizenry, a vibrant economy and great schools. Without an investment, Washington and its citizens were guar-anteed very little in the way of a return.
The budget the Legislature passed does include some cuts and includes a modest revenue package, most of which will go toward funding education.
The amount of taxes raised for the budget is less than the amount lost to court decisions earlier this year, in-cluding the $500 million lost when the Supreme Court invalidated the estate tax. The budget reinstates a portion of that tax and increases the per-pack cigarette tax and the per-liter liquor tax.
But, to repeat, the budget contains no general tax increases and maintains a healthy reserve of about $200 million.
Although this session was a success in many respects, it did have three notable disappointments.
I prime-sponsored legislation to support embryonic stem cell research in our state, to allow our colleges and universities to consider race as one factor among many in admissions decisions and to provide equality for sexual orientation in our state statues. These were among the hardest-fought, most contentious issues of the session.
Unfortunately, these measures did not pass. However, they did accumu-late sufficient momentum to be rein-troduced, and I am committed to work-ing them very actively again next year.
To everyone who contacted me during the session to let me know the issues that matter to you, I thank you! I certainly kept your thoughts in mind as I cast my votes on the issues outlined above.
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, represents the 36th Legislative District and chairs the Senate Labor, Commerce, Research & Development Committee.