With this being a year for supplemental budgets in the Legislature and not a season of financial heavy lifting, lawmakers are essentially digging under the couch cushions for loose change.
Well, $100 million or so can’t really be described as loose change — not when every penny of it comes from the pockets of taxpayers. But it is paltry compared with the $33.6 billion two-year budget the Legislature passed last year, and it is merely a stopgap before the intense budget battles resume next year. In the meantime, both the Senate and the House are putting forth versions of a supplemental budget, with the only certainty being that the can is getting kicked down the road.
The Republican-controlled majority coalition in the Senate came up with a plan that would add $96 million in spending, with most of the money being dedicated to education or other youth programs. There is an additional $38 million for K-12 education, and $25 million for child care, and $7 million for child mental health. There also would be a boost for students pursuing degrees in science, technology, or math, plus financial aid for service members and the children of undocumented immigrants — the Real Hope Act signed into law last week by Gov. Jay Inslee. But, for the fifth year in a row, there would not be a pay hike for teachers.
All of the education spending is predictable and understandable and reasonable. Yet, as lawmakers know, it also is inadequate. The Legislature has been directed, through the state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision, to fully fund K-12 education in the state, which means adding roughly $4.5 billion by 2018. Lawmakers added $1 billion with the budget that was passed last year, to which the court scoffed and essentially said, “Let us know when you get serious about this.” So, proposing an additional $38 million for K-12 education in the supplemental budget is a proverbial drop in the bucket.
House Democrats, meanwhile, have forwarded a $200 million package, funded in part by the eliminating or squeezing certain tax breaks. That’s where things get personal for Clark County, as one of the targeted loopholes would close an out-of-state sales-tax exemption. Shoppers from Oregon, for example, don’t pay sales tax when purchasing items in Washington, a fact that is of great consequence for the county that lies across the river from Oregon’s most populous city.
Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, is a big supporter of closing the sales-tax exemption, as he was last year when the idea ended up being left out of the final budget plan. But, as The Columbian wrote editorially at that time, “Try selling your plan to merchants in Clark County — many of them teetering on the brink of collapse — who would lose business if sales taxes were charged to Oregonians.” The bottom line remains thus: Charging sales tax for Oregonians would hurt businesses in Clark County. It would provide tax revenue for all Washingtonians, but would disproportionately diminish revenue for our local businesses.
Moeller should seek revenue streams that won’t directly hurt merchants in his constituency, but he can’t be blamed for trying; all legislators have been tasked with closing a loophole here, ending a tax break there. As public sentiment appears to be solidly against any direct tax increases, lawmakers are left to dig for buried treasure in the tax code. With the McCleary mandate looming over every budgetary decision to come out of Olympia, that leaves politicians in an uneasy position. The couch cushions have been picked clean, and the real fight has yet to begin.