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Wednesday, April 1, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control: Washington legislators left much to do upon their return

OLYMPIA – There will be some well-deserved grousing for the next couple of days about the Legislature and the things it didn’t do.

Chief among them, of course, is not passing budgets that will spend taxpayers’ money for the next two years, starting July 1. Critics inside and outside the hallowed chambers will be right to say this is the Legislature’s chief goal in any odd-year session. But they’ll be wrong to act all that surprised.

With opposing parties in control of the two houses, a big-ticket item like the state Supreme Court order to fix years of short-changing the state’s public schools and a disagreement on whether current revenues are growing fast enough to cover things state government should do for its citizens, many legislators didn’t think they’d finish on time.

Hoped, yes. Insisted it was possible, absolutely. Believed in their hearts of hearts, no.

The budget, legislators are fond of saying, is the chief policy document of the session. It is there that the state puts its money where the Legislature’s collective mouth is. If it is worried about children graduating from high school unable to read much beyond “Goodnight Moon” or balance a simple checkbook; if it thinks people who need mental health treatment should get it promptly; if it thinks repeat drunken drivers should get fewer chances to get back behind the wheel; if it wants to replace creaky old bridges and widen clogged highways, it spends money on such things. If it wants to stop doing things that are inefficient or ineffectual, it stops spending on those things.

It has big decisions yet to make about how and how much to pay teachers and state employees. It has to decide whether it can get out of the voters’ mandate to shrink the number of kids in each classroom, and if so, which grades to forsake, at least for the time being.

So much will be written over the next month about what the budget should and shouldn’t do that it seems a waste of space to excoriate legislators now for their budget interruptus. There are other things they didn’t do, that they should have, and perhaps might still do.

They did not come to any conclusion on how to help Eastern Washington cope with the rapid re-establishment of wolves. Even the carefully negotiated proposal to revisit the wolf management plan, which underestimated how fast the alpha predators might repopulate the region – a bill so vanilla that it came out of the House 98-0 – failed to get a final vote in the Senate before the gavel came down Friday.

They did not agree to a simple change in election law that would keep the secretary of state and county auditors from getting a little boost by having their name appear on return addresses for voter pamphlets or ballot envelopes. This is not the biggest election crisis of the century; neither is it a heavy lift. It costs the state no money; it requires no task force to implement. It passed the House 97-0, went to the Senate, which made a minor change in timing before passing it 48-0, but didn’t get a final revote in the House.

True, the Legislature did not pass a more substantial campaign finance reform bill, to require the names of some so-called “dark money,” either. But, hey, that one was controversial because it’s about people who might be giving legislators money. The return address bill is just, well, stationery.

Of course, there were some bills among the more than 2,400 proposed that many people will be glad they did not pass. Lots of little ones, including several proposals to cleave Washington in two and form a new state east of the Cascades. (It never passes. It’s just a chance to show off some intrastate griping and to come up with a new name for the new state.)

There were also big ones, like the array of tax bills some Democrats proposed. Republicans lumped them together in criticism, as though this were a feast which must be devoured completely before they left the table rather than a smorgasbord from which to pick a more balanced meal for our unbalanced plate of state taxes. Some Democrats always rush in with a variety of tax proposals without regard to what their fellow Ds are suggesting; for Republicans, it’s much simpler: They are genetically predisposed not to propose any tax increases.

Except this year, Senate Republicans did. True, they advertised the proposed change in state and local levy laws as “revenue neutral” statewide, which technically made it a tax reform, not an increase. But some people would get a property tax increase while others got a decrease. Tax hike, said Senate Democrats. This prompted one of the most unexpected moments of the session, when anti-tax initiative maven Tim Eyman sent an email to his supporters calling on Gov. Jay Inslee to save the state from Senate Republican taxes.

Inslee, for his part, was quick to denounce it with the most politically damning dis of the session. In districts where the property taxes went up, they would go up not just on the rich, who could likely afford it, but also “widows and World War II veterans” struggling to keep their homes, he said. Probably didn’t add orphans because so few actually pay property taxes.

Spin Control also appears as a blog with daily items and reader comments at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.

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