Budget season in Olympia is Pyongyang minus the nukes. Dear party leaders, with their posturing and constituency appeasing, mask an ulterior agenda: This is about deal-making. After a blur of horse trades, lawmakers must ensure that the final budget compromise aligns with the public interest.
Last week, House Democrats released and then passed their operating budget, coming on the heels of the Senate Majority Coalition’s budget rollout and its subsequent passage. The principal difference revolves around revenue (read: to close or not to close a handful of tax loopholes.) If and how school reforms should be embroidered into K-12 funding mandated by the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision is also a division point.
Democrats are right about closing loopholes to fund education, and have a more farsighted, do-no-harm approach to higher ed. Republicans are right to demand more accountability and school reform.
The Senate’s Republican-majority coalition pulled a page from the old Democratic playbook and embraced some one-time funding schemes. An amusing misstep was counting timber revenues twice (!) with $170 million in funds already earmarked for school construction in the capital budget. This was the budget angels reminding drafters that they shouldn’t be shifting school-mandated money to the operating budget to begin with.
“Republicans in the Senate depend completely on unspecified cuts, unconstitutional transfers and gimmicks. We’re proposing a balanced, responsible, honest approach to both the long term and short term problems.” said Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Another ill-considered option is permanently siphoning millions of dollars in real estate and public utility taxes from the Public Works Fund.
During the horse trading, Democrats will need to compromise on some loopholes. Eliminating exemptions on oil refineries and the sales tax for non-residents and janitorial services is fine. But hometown ale? House Democrats plan to lower but extend the tax with a 15-cent per gallon surtax for microbreweries. That one should get the heave-ho.
Republicans and a few Democrats have elbowed for overdue school-accountability measures, and they need to be on the table. Efforts include giving principals the authority to hire and fire bad teachers. Grading schools, a brainstorm then-candidate Jay Inslee supported but subsequently backpedaled on, is a clear index that promotes accountability. Radical, these are not. Republicans have good reason to take a “reform first” approach.
Now, it’s time — somehow — to find common cause.