On paper, Washington budget balanced

But 4-year spending plan needs unlikely transfer from fund

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TACOMA — The state budget is balanced over four years. On paper, anyway.

The law requires a positive balance over the four years ending in mid-2017. A new budget outlook projects the state to be in the black at that point by a bare $19.5 million, in a projected budget of more than $36 billion.

But that total is padded by a transfer of more than $52 million in future years from an account that funds scientific research. The prospects for such a transfer are dubious. Gov. Jay Inslee this month vetoed the same transfer for the coming year’s budget.

Inslee’s veto didn’t affect lawmakers’ stated intent to raid the Life Sciences Discovery Fund in the following two years. The fund spends money from the state’s settlement with tobacco companies.

The Legislature’s top budget writers, Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter and Republican Sen. Andy Hill, expressed concern on that score during a meeting Wednesday to review the budget outlook.

They didn’t get a chance to fully explain their worries because the meeting of the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council was canceled after a half-hour of trying to patch in Hill, Hunter and others by phone.

Without them, the meeting didn’t have a quorum and had to be rescheduled.

Even without the questionable assumption about the tobacco money, the four-year budget projection is built on shaky ground. Because of how the four-year-budget law is written, it assumes greater revenue growth than is actually predicted.

On the spending side, the long-term budget doesn’t have to take into account extra money lawmakers have promised for public schools. Adding that money to address a court mandate could cost well over $1 billion in the budget lawmakers write next year, requiring new cuts or taxes.