The benefits — and the frustrations — of having a divided Legislature are evident in the competing state budget proposals put forth in Olympia.
Plans from the Republican-controlled Senate and the Democrat-controlled House both provide big increases in spending for K-12 education, and they say “budget” in their title. That, however, is where the similarities end. While that portends a long and drawn-out negotiating process on the two-year budget, it also bodes well for the state’s residents as compromise is likely to preserve the wheat and discard the chaff in the respective proposals.
Senate Republicans last week unveiled a plan to provide $1.8 billion of new state money for public K-12 schools, hoping to meet the Legislature’s paramount duty of adequately funding education as demanded by the state Supreme Court in the 2012 McCleary v. Washington decision.
To achieve that goal, senators go to great lengths to avoid any new taxes. They propose a state property tax increase designed to replace local school levies, a plan that will provide relief for property owners in low-value districts and increase the burden on areas with high property values. Republicans also propose cuts to various social programs, such as $53 million from the Housing and Essential Needs program and $44 million from a child care subsidy program for low-income residents.
House Democrats, meanwhile, propose a $1.9 billion increase in education funding to be financed through $3 billion in tax increases. Central to the plan is the creation of a capital-gains tax that, according to lawmakers, would affect 48,000 residents. Democrats also propose increases to the business and occupation tax upon large companies and in the real estate excise tax for high-end homes.
In summary, the two plans leave a cavernous gulf that provides plenty of room for meeting in the middle. So allow us to begin pushing both sides toward that divide.
To begin with, state Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver, said the Democrat plan “reflects our collective values.” Wylie is a thoughtful and engaged representative, but we are guessing that $3 billion in new taxes are not the kind of values that most Washington residents are eager to embrace. With increases to state funding for education and mental health being essential for this budget cycle, Democrats will need to find some cuts elsewhere.
Republicans, for their part, must understand that funding education — which should be viewed as a moral duty rather than simply a court order — cannot be accomplished by looking for change under the sofa cushions. Their property tax proposal is innovative and worthy of consideration, but a capital-gains tax should not be dismissed out of ideological rigidity. Washington’s tax system has been deemed the most regressive in the nation, meaning the burden falls more heavily upon low-income residents than in other states, and that calls for some adjustments.
Changes also are needed in how the state negotiates contracts for public employees, and Republicans have wisely made this a focal point of their budget proposal. By failing to fully fund salary increases negotiated by the executive branch, senators have retained a bargaining chip to make the process more transparent.
For now, the two budgets appear as if they came from different states rather than different parties. In the end, it is certain that neither side will get everything it desires, and that will provide the best possible outcome for Washington residents.