Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed supplemental state budget is a good starting point for legislators, but there is room for improvement. In short, the proposal embraces two good ideas that don’t necessarily go well together.
The centerpiece of the budget is an effort to meet the state Supreme Court’s mandate to fully fund education beginning next year. Lawmakers constructed the foundation for that last year, passing a plan that will add billions in state money for K-12 public schools, but the court determined that it fell short by not funding teacher salaries until 2019 rather than next fall — the deadline set in the 2012 McCleary v. Washington ruling.
Inslee has proposed using the state’s reserve funds to pay for salaries next year. He then would replenish those funds by instituting an as-yet-undefined carbon tax upon polluting industries. The carbon tax would rebuild the reserve funds, then remain in place in future years to help fight climate change in the state. “It finishes our paramount duty by advancing it one year,” Inslee told The Columbian’s Editorial Board. “You can’t overstate how important it is to meet that constitutional duty.”
Lawmakers, indeed, must complete McCleary funding this year. They have had plenty of time to address the issue, but waited until this year to give it their full attention.
Raiding the state’s Rainy Day Fund must be accompanied by a clear plan for replenishing those funds. As tempting as it is for Inslee to opportunistically point to a carbon tax as the appropriate solution, that tactic is replete with political risk.
Inslee long has pushed for such a tax, but with Republicans holding a slim majority in the Senate, the issue has been a non-starter. With Democrats flipping control of the Senate by winning a special election in an east King County district last month, they might now have the political power to push through a carbon tax. Or they might not. Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate are slim, and a tax upon polluting industries remains a political hot potato, particularly in a year when most legislators will be up for re-election.
By pushing through a carbon tax without Republican support, Democrats in the Legislature would be mimicking the single-party dysfunction that has the public so annoyed with Congress. Instead, a bipartisan plan for replenishing the reserve fund must be forged.
Inslee makes a strong case for a carbon tax, pointing to clear signs of climate change such as increasingly devastating wildfires throughout the western United States. Climate change is very real, and a vast majority of climate scientists have concluded that human activity and fossil-fuel emissions have exacerbated that change. Ignoring it should no longer be considered an option.
So, there are several issues at play here. There is a need to fully fund public schools and finally remove the yoke of the McCleary ruling that has dominated discussion in Olympia for far too long. Legislators should have seriously addressed the issue years ago, allowing them to move on to other pressing issues such as homelessness and transportation. There also is a need to effectively address carbon emissions and for the state to remain on the cutting edge of environmental protections.
But while meeting the McCleary mandate and cutting carbon emissions both are good ideas, it seems incongruous to link the two. Legislators next year should find consensus on the two important, yet separate, issues.