Washington’s financial outlook, so rosy when the Legislature left Olympia six months ago, hasn’t bloomed fast enough to keep up with the growing need for mental health services, and fires that burned through $180 million.
Other health expenditures have also outstripped projections. So, despite an additional $245 million in projected revenue increases, the state could need as much as $500 million more.
And Gov. Jay Inslee has also proposed teacher wage hikes, particularly for those just entering the profession – and those most likely to leave if better opportunities come knocking on the classroom door.
To pay for his education initiatives, Inslee has revived proposals to eliminate four tax loopholes that, however questionable, have survived previous assaults. These are opportunities only in the sense they bait Republicans happy for more chances to denounce tax hikes in an election year.
The governor asserts more money for K-12 education outweighs the need for such things as excise tax exemptions for banks selling off foreclosed real estate, and the use tax exemption on fuels refineries consumer internally.
But the meager $101 million his proposal would raise in the 2017 fiscal year, and the projected $226 million in the next biennium, only underscores the magnitude of the task ahead if the state is to comply with the Washington Supreme Court order it amply fund education, at an estimated added cost of $3.5 billion.
The governor should, and legislators certainly will, take a breather pending the report of an eight-member working group assessing yet again how to meet the court’s demands. A severe shortage of teachers has compounded the difficulty of their task. The findings are expected in January.
The needs of state firefighters and mental health workers are more urgent.
The $180 million to pay the bills for combating the worst fire season in state history are unavoidable, although the federal government may eventually pick up some of the tab. Perhaps the current weather pattern will us to expect a respite after two bad fire years in a row.
But Inslee wisely proposes $29 million to build firefighting capacity at the state and local level just in case. More trucks and more training will pay off even if the forests do not go up in flames in 2016.
Capacity-building for the state’s mental health system will be much tougher. Psychiatrists are scarce – just ask the Veterans Administration – and command premium compensation.
The same is true for competent, caring staff throughout the system. Supplemental budget provisions for legal settlements are, in part, a reflection of inadequate care for mental health patients whether they are institutionalized or transitioning into the community.
Constitutionally, Inslee’s balance must balance over four years. It does not, but an emergency like the fires allows for exceptions. He would also draw on the state’s Budget Stabilization Account, which would fall to about $1 billion. Considering the state’s economic vibrancy, which the governor himself acknowledges, this is the wrong time to be tapping reserves.
Legislative sessions in odd-numbered years are supposed to be short. We’ll see.
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