In Focus: Stage set for major 2015-17 budget debate

April 4, 2014 

Now that the dust has settled, we can look back on what lawmakers did during the 2014 legislative session. With seven minutes to spare, the Legislature adjourned at 11:53 p.m. on the last day of the 60-day session, avoiding the need for a special session for the first time in several years. Among the bills passed was a 2014 supplemental operating budget (SB 6002). Unlike previous years, when major re-writes of the budget were needed, SB 6002 was a true supplemental budget making minor changes to state spending. This was possible because of an improvement in the state’s revenue forecast and adherence to the state’s landmark four-year balanced budget requirement. Not acted on, however, was a proposed supplemental capital budget (first time since 1996 no supplemental capital budget was approved). The largest policy spending increase in the supplemental operating budget is $58 million for “K-12 materials, supplies, and operating costs.” While increasing spending by just under $33.7 billion, lawmakers left an ending fund balance of $315 million, with total reserves, including the constitutionally protect budget reserve, of $897 million. The spending increase adopted is projected to comply with the state’s four-year balanced budget requirement. The 2014 supplemental brings the total state operating budget to $67.6 billion for 2013-15 (the 2011-13 total operating budget was $60.7 billion). Although the supplemental operating budget received strong bipartisan support, lawmakers were unable to come to an agreement on a supplemental capital budget. One of the proposed projects affected by this inaction was the urgent request by TVW (our state’s version of C-SPAN) for upgrades to its failing camera equipment that allow live coverage of the Legislature and public hearings. This failure could severly limit the ability of Eastern Washington residents to monitor what occurs in Olympia. The proposed TVW equipment upgrades were part of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s 2013-15 capital budget proposal, but the funding was removed by lawmakers in the version they adopted last year. It was also added to the Senate’s proposed supplemental capital budget this year, but was removed by the House. Ultimately, no supplemental capital budget was adopted. Also casting a strong shadow over the 2014 supplemental budget debate was the Supreme Court’s order in the two-year-old McCleary K-12 funding lawsuit. An order issued Jan. 9 by the court indicated justices wanted lawmakers to significantly increase K-12 funding in the 2014 supplemental budget. The court said: “The Legislature is embarking on a short session in 2014, where it has an opportunity to take a significant step forward. ... The need for immediate action could not be more apparent.” The justices ordered lawmakers to submit by April 30, “a complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education for each school year between now and the 2017-18 school year.” The court’s detailed budget directives to the Legislature raise separation of powers concerns, however. Dissenting from the court’s Jan. 9 order, retiring Justice Jim Johnson said: “This court’s expanding control of the Legislature’s funding of education continues to be a violation of the state’s constitution. ... The Legislature — not any court — is the body capable of gathering relevant information regarding competing state budget interests and funding each according to available resources provided from the economy and tax resources.” The court’s response to the legislature’s April 30 report and 2014 supplemental operating budget will determine whether Washington is on the path to a constitutional crisis or whether the separation of powers between the judiciary and legislative branches will be respected. Though there were missed opportunities for enacting important fiscal reforms during the 2014 legislative session, the supplemental operating budget is a steady proposal that leaves Washingtonians in a good position to turn attention to the choices presented for the 2015-17 budget. The 2014 election will provide voters the opportunity to pass their own judgment on what direction they would like the 2015 Legislature to take, and how lawmakers can best keep the state’s budget on a sustainable path while balancing the infinite demands for increased spending with the need to not harm the state’s opportunity for economic recovery and growth. w Jason Mercier is Washington Policy Center’s director of the Center for Government Reform and is based out of the Tri-Cities. For additional information please visit www.washingtonpolicy.org

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