The state Senate and House operating budgets released in recent weeks appear to be in sync on overall spending, making education and social services top priorities.
But there is a shell game going on in the Senate version while the House has proposed a capital-gains tax to boost state income.
There is not enough revenue being generated under Washington’s current regressive tax structure to adequately meet the needs of all the public services it should provide. What to cut, how much to cut and whether to add new taxes will be the sticking points as the Republican-led Senate and the Democratic-led House try to hammer out a budget before the April 26 session deadline.
Senate leaders were determined to craft a budget that did not raise taxes, which always sounds appealing. But their strategy relies on revenue from marijuana sales and the hope that voters will support a change to the class-size initiative that was approved just last fall.
Initiative 1351 reduces class sizes in all grades, but the Senate wants voters to re-think that plan and limit student numbers only in kindergarten through third grades.
It’s quite a gamble to count on voters changing their minds, and the reliance on marijuana sales is an undependable revenue source.
In addition, the Senate plan also takes money from other agencies in order to meet the legal requirements of funding K-12 education.
The budget for the state park system, for example, already has been gutted over the years and now the Senate wants to cut even more. The House budget would allow the park agency to at least operate at current levels, but the Senate’s plan is expected to result in the loss of another 100 full-time employees and a minimum loss of nearly $5 million in lost revenue because of staff reductions, according to the Washington State Parks & Recreation Commission.
Parks can’t operate without staff, and limiting access means the parks will generate less revenue. It is a downward spiral that started several years ago when the state parks’ general fund decreased from $94.5 million to the current level of $8.7 million. This devastating trend needs to plateau, at the very least, and not plunge any further.
On the House side, the budget does not include $6 million in emergency drought relief requested by Gov. Jay Inslee to support irrigation for farmers and enough stream water for fish. This is a huge concern in the Mid-Columbia, as all predictions show a severely restricted water supply this summer.
These are just a couple of examples of important needs not being met in either budget. There are others.
At some point state leaders need to have a serious conversation about finding a more reliable way to generate enough revenue to support the operating needs of the state.
In the meantime, a new, modest and reliable revenue source combined with a conservative approach to spending could mark the compromise needed for a balanced budget this year.