Washington lawmakers trudge back to Olympia tomorrow to complete budgets left on the cutting room floor two weeks ago.
The senators and representatives left town with general fund blueprints allegedly acceptable to a majority of members. Neither stands up to close scrutiny. Pieces, yes. The full meal deal, no.
The Senate higher education budget, for example, assumes a surcharge on international students that has been a nonstarter, and for good reason. It makes no sense to discourage enrollment by the very students whom, as graduates, state employers will need. Tapping into the timber trust fund for $160 million, and counting the money twice, is suspect constitutionally and mathematically.
The House makes its numbers add up by assuming more than $1 billion in revenues, in part by extending “temporary” taxes, in part by eliminating “loopholes.” The Republican-dominated but bipartisan coalition controlling the Senate is not going to buy it.
Despite its flaws, the Senate version is a better starting point. But where must the state be at the end?
First of all, with a balanced budget, as required by the state constitution – for four years. The trick of pushing expenditures into the next fiscal year was eliminated last year. Recurring revenue shortfalls in recent years have forced legislators to start each session with adjustments to the previous year’s budget.
Second, with a first installment on the funding necessary to comply with the state Supreme Court ruling in the McCleary case, which found the state contribution to K-12 education was far short of constitutional requirements. That translates into $1.5 billion in the Senate budget, $1.9 billion from the House, which includes money for expanded preschool.
Third, with a higher education system spared cuts that have drastically reduced state support for universities, colleges and community colleges that are essential to a knowledge economy. Both budgets make a start, adding $300 million. The Senate version rolls back tuition by 3 percent, but tuition-setting should remain on campus.
Fourth, with minimal tax increases, extensions or preferred euphemism. The House and Gov. Jay Inslee suggested as many as 11, but the Senate seems ready to accept only a change in estate tax law in response to another Supreme Court case, and broader application of a telecommunications tax. The stopgap “temporary” tax measures that were a cynical work-around of the super-majority requirement need to go.
Fifth, with a workers’ compensation system that permits buyouts of injured employees as young as 40. The change would not affect health coverage.
Sixth, with the least possible damage to the social safety net.
A transportation package that does little more than sustain maintenance and construction levels in already on its way to Inslee, who still wants something more ambitious.
The state’s revenue picture is improving, with the possibility of a windfall if Congress passes an Internet sales tax measure. Medicaid changes will help, too, at least initially, but the looming implementation of Obamacare creates another set of uncertainties.
There is one certainty: It will take compromise to move Washington forward.
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