Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, second from right, confers with Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, right, in front of Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, on the Senate floor at the Capitol in Olympia on Feb. 15, 2022, during debate. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, second from right, confers with Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, right, in front of Sen. June Robinson, D-Everett, on the Senate floor at the Capitol in Olympia on Feb. 15, 2022, during debate. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

Editorial: Voters can make call on lawmakers’ success, failure

Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature staked out clear budget and tax positions this year.

By The Herald Editorial Board

No doubt, the state Legislature’s recently completed 60-day session saw a record revenue surplus and historic decisions on how that surplus would be used for the state’s supplement to last year’s budget, a capital budget and the first significant transportation package since 2015.

The disagreement comes — with Democrats in control of House and Senate, allowing them to carry the day on the bulk of those decisions — over the benefits, drawbacks and priorities for how that money will be spent and how that fits the wishes of state residents.

In the end, the state’s surplus — about $8 billion over the next four years, courtesy of better-than-expected revenue forecasts and federal pandemic relief — was used in two major areas:

It adds about $5 billion in spending to the state’s two-year operating budget for a total of $64.1 billion, allowing allocations to bolster services and support programs still recovering from the pandemic and the Great Recession, including the needs of public school students; crises in homelessness, addiction and behavioral health; and in answering calls to address needs and programs that had gone unfulfilled in past years.

And it won a 16-year $16.8 billion transportation package that along with addressing a backlog of maintenance and renovation work on highways, bridges and more, committed funding for major transportation projects, including electric-hybrid ferries and projects that build on past efforts to address climate change by investing in infrastructure for cyclists, pedestrians and bus and rail transit riders.

With a couple of exceptions, including business and occupation tax relief for small businesses, what that surplus didn’t go toward was a significant reduction in taxes, a missed opportunity in the minds of Republicans, including that of the party leaders for the two chambers, Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, and Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm.

“We had opportunities to do some meaningful tax relief for Washingtonians,” said Braun recently during an interview with the editorial board. “We had our own ideas, but there was even a Democratic proposal for a sales tax reduction, and we loved all over that.”

Nothing came of it, sadly, he said, even at a time when other states’ legislatures were providing tax relief.

But this gets to the fundamental disagreement between Republicans and Democrats over taxes and what they are used for.

“Lots of people have talked about broad-based tax breaks,” said House Speaker Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, in a separate interview with the editorial board. “Our argument, our position was we really should be investing in the services that Washingtonians have over and over again told us that they want, that help their communities, help their families that help them individually. That’s what we were able to do.”

The revenue surplus, Jinkins said, allowed for the budget to make up for past program cuts and lost ground in wages, such as those for care providers and others, some of which hadn’t seen meaningful increases since the Great Recession.

There was also a need for some caution, said Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, recognizing that revenue forecasts aren’t guaranteed and some of the money involved was a one-time windfall. Keeping that in mind, Billig said, some $4.5 billion was left in the state’s reserves, and short-term revenue was used for one-off investments, such as projects to ease homelessness.

Another focus, especially with the return of students to classrooms following two years of remote learning was help for K-12 schools, said Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo. Along with funding to help school districts compensate for reduced support based on enrollment, the budget funded additional resources for nurses, counselors and learning assistance for students, particularly in smaller, budget-challenged districts.

And as much as what was spent, how that spending is coordinated was a consideration said Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, as communities confront issues that are interconnected.

“We’ve been so much better in the last few years of marrying the capital investments with the operating budget investments and educational investments to make sure we have the workforce to help people get through substance use disorders and behavioral health challenges and have a place for them to live safely and be part of the community,” Peterson said. Because of that coordination, “we’re going to start seeing a difference.”

Not surprisingly, the disagreements were similar in regard to the transportation package.

Braun and Wilcox said there were not big disappointments with the Democratic priorities regarding major projects, though Braun said at $3 billion the plan undershoots on the state’s road and bridge maintenance needs.

The larger problem with the transportation package, even though it avoided adding to the state’s gas tax, was another missed opportunity, Wilcox said. Republicans have made repeated calls to make a long-term and sustainable reform in the transportation budget by moving the revenue from vehicle sales tax from the state’s general fund and dedicating it to transportation needs. Having that dedicated source, Wilcox said, would head off a lot of fights in the future.

The other disappointment, both said, was that Republicans were shut out of negotiations on the package, even after they had drafted their own plan to use in those talks, Wilcox said.

While the package was crafted largely by Sen. Marko Liias, D-Everett, and Rep. Jake Fey, D-Tacoma, both Liias and Jinkins said there was outreach to Republicans, including what Liias said were daily updates and details of discussions with his counterpart on the transportation committee, Sen. Curtis King, R-Yakima, one of the authors of the last big transportation package in 2015.

The problem lawmakers faced, said Liias, who took over as committee chairman in December when Steve Hobbs was tapped to head the secretary of state’s office, was a short session complicated by upcoming legislative races this year and even some early disagreement between House and Senate Democrats on how to move the Move Ahead Washington plan forward.

Even had they had more time, Liias said, Republicans had objected last year to the Climate Commitment Act, a significant source of revenue for transportation that will use proceeds from the auction of credits from its carbon cap-and-invest system. With little time, Liias said, early negotiations with Republicans were likely to get stuck on that revenue source, dooming a package for this year.

Members of each party will disagree on whether it’s Republicans or Democrats who most closely represent the interests of the state’s residents on taxes and how they’re spent; not to mention policy legislation adopted in the last two years. But with all 98 seats in the state House and 24 of 49 seats in the Senate up for election this year, we have only to wait a few months for the state’s voters to make that call themselves.

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