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Sue Lani Madsen: A billion here, a billion there

April 14, 2021 Updated Wed., April 14, 2021 at 6:27 p.m.

By Sue Lani Madsen For The Spokesman-Review

In his opening remarks during a media availability session on Monday, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-Spokane) listed small business relief as a success of this past legislative session.

Somehow, 34 new fees and taxes in Transportation Budget Bill SB5483 alone don’t feel like relief, adding nearly $15 billion to an already record-setting budget.

It’s not unusual for the Legislature to spend all the projected income in good years, and 2021-2023 are looking like very good years. The March 17 state revenue report from the Economic Revenue and Forecast Council projected an additional $3.3 billion coming into the state in the next biennium.

What is unusual is to not only spend the projected income but to simultaneously raise taxes and transfer $1.8 billion out of the rainy day reserve fund into the general fund for future spending. All that before adding in $4 billion in one-time federal funds.

A billion here, a billion there and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

The operating budget of nearly $60 billion proposed for the next biennium also assumes passing a capital gains income tax, according to Billig. In response to a reporter’s question, Billig said the new capital gains tax is “booked in both House and Senate budgets so the expectation is it will pass … still have 10 days left, it’s a big bill.”

The Legislature is set to adjourn on April 25 and must pass three separate budgets to avoid a special session. Billig reported the negotiations between the House and Senate on the operating budget and capital budget are going well, but the “current law transportation budget is not simple because we do have some revenue decreases” in lower gas tax collections. Discussions are continuing on the full transportation package and “whether we get there or not before the end of session is still an open question.”

Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, cautioned on mixing discussions of the transportation and operating budgets.

“There is no rationale for any tax increase on the operating side, but there are balance sheet problems on the transportation side,” Mercier said.

The transportation budget problems are a result of too many years of bonding new projects without planning for maintenance costs.

In Washington’s one-party government, this is all on the Democrats. The 2019 infrastructure report card issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers rates Washington’s roads and bridges as mediocre and stormwater systems as poor. And still last Monday, House Speaker Rep. Lori Jinkins (D-Tacoma) emphasized the importance of the transportation package to spend money on new multimodal projects.

Representative Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) would have liked to see one-time discretionary federal funds used to “do a few big things … fully fund the fish culvert replacement or rural broadband buildout,” rather than what he calls the “spread the peanut butter strategy” used by the Democrats to theoretically justify tax hikes.

The tax and fee increases hit hardest the low-income populations Democrats claim to champion. Gas tax increases of 9.8 cents a gallon, title fees on car registration bumped from $1 to $16, car surcharges to help fund new ferries … a dollar here and a dollar there add up to real money for Washingtonians watching their own tight budgets.

Democrats could have chosen relief on sales tax, always top of their list of regressive taxes. They could have chosen property tax relief. They could have chosen reductions in driver’s license fees and vehicle registration fees. They could have chosen to eliminate Discover Passes and other fees creating a barrier to public lands and aim to encourage healthy outdoor recreation.

The burning question from Washingtonians is why increase taxes when revenue projections are up. Where is all the new money going?

“Unfortunately we don’t know a lot right now because the negotiations are all behind closed doors,” Mercier said.

Several reporters pressed the Democratic leadership for a commitment to release the budgets to the public 48 or even 24 hours before the final adoption. Billig’s goal is to get the budgets out as soon as possible, saying, “there’s hundreds of pages of technical language that has to be reviewed and double checked.”

There are hundreds of Washingtonians, including Republican members of the Legislature, who would gladly be part of that review, if only the budgets made it out from behind closed doors before Sunday morning on the last day of session.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com

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