Entering her last few weeks as governor, Chris Gregoire tied up one of her constitutionally mandated duties Tuesday. She presented a 2013-2015 budget that makes cuts, raises taxes and is, almost certainly, dead on arrival.
But there’s value in this $34 billion lame-duck proposal, if only to frame the huge challenge before incoming governor Jay Inslee, the Democratic House and the closely divided Senate as they try to reach consensus on a budget.
As in years past, they’ll face a deficit (just under $1 billion), a still-shaky economy and a voter-approved initiative that limits their ability to raise taxes. Add to that the directive in January from the Washington Supreme Court to make progress on addressing a serious shortfall in funding for K-12 education.
The urgency of doing that was reinforced Thursday when the court ruled that the Legislature is moving too slowly in finding more money for education. Although the state has until 2018 to solve its education shortfall problem under the McCleary lawsuit decision, the court wants to see more steady progress than it’s seen so far.
It’s not a stretch to suspect that anti-tax comments by the next governor and the folks running half of the Legislature might have figured into the justices’ thinking in Thursday’s ruling. By making the ruling now, they send a powerful message to the Legislature less than a month before it convenes in early January.
Estimates are that the state needs to spend between $1 billion and $4 billion more per biennium to fully fund education as mandated by the state constitution. Gregoire – whose proposed budget raises about $1 billion for education – sees no way to get there and plug the deficit without some combination of cuts and new revenue. Neither does this board.
Unfortunately, both Inslee and the Republican-dominated “bipartisan majority coalition” in the Senate seem to have carved out rigid negotiating positions by saying they won’t support new taxes. The only alternative is unacceptable cuts of about $2 billion to state services on top of the deep ones that have been made in recent years.
If new revenues are off the table, what do Inslee and Senate Republicans propose cutting?
Gregoire doesn’t expect legislators to adopt every aspect of her proposal – which includes news taxes on wholesale fuel and junk food as well as extending some existing taxes. But she’s offering them a road map of possible routes to take – as well as a little cover if they need it as they try to figure out how to address the state’s tough fiscal realities.