A surprisingly good budget from a divided Legislature

The News TribuneJune 30, 2013 

The 2013 Legislature can’t be judged a success because it failed to approve the major highway improvements needed to keep Washington’s economy growing.

That said, lawmakers deserve praise for pulling together a surprisingly good operating budget last week in the face of deadline pressure.

For months, the Legislature was locked in the kind of partisan gridlock that has all but paralyzed the budget-writing process in Congress.

The Democrats who run the state House of Representatives were pushing to preserve the social safety net by ending a collection of tax breaks and incentives – “loopholes,” in their parlance. The Republicans who control the Senate with the support of two Democrats vowed that they wouldn’t let a penny in higher taxes – including loophole closure – make it through the upper chamber.

Both parties were under obligation to spend hundreds of millions more on schools to comply with the Washington Supreme Court mandate for full state funding of basic education.

To a surprising extent, everyone won – assuming the budget writers’ optimistic fiscal assumptions pan out.

The new $33.5 billion plan for the 2013-14 biennium promises roughly an additional $1 billion to the K-12 system. That’s a huge step toward full funding.

The state money will relieve local school districts of much of the burden for funding school buses, classroom supplies and utilities. It will also pay for more instructional time, more full-day kindergarten, more intervention for poor and underachieving students, and smaller class sizes in elementary schools.

It’s the biggest one-time boost to public education in memory.

House Democrats fought tenaciously on behalf of distressed families and endangered children, and they largely prevailed. Yet Senate Republicans also largely held the line against taxes. They squared this circle with a help of an improved revenue forecast, a raid on construction money and happy assumptions about unspecified government savings.

The sweetest surprise in the budget was an honest-to-goodness 12 percent increase in funding for higher education, including financial aid to students of limited means.

The Legislature had long been cannibalizing Washington’s universities and two-year colleges to keep other programs afloat. It has finally stopped pushing the colleges toward the brink and pulled them a step back from it. Undergraduate students who’ve endured steep tuition hikes year after year will be delighted to see none this fall.

The Legislature funds the future when it invests in public schools and colleges. It’s a disgrace that it couldn’t do the same with the highways that carry Washington’s cargo and people.

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