Tuesday, May 24, 2022
May 24, 2022

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In Our View: Public Input Pushed Aside

State lawmakers finally reach budget deal, but taxpayers had no direct say in it

The Columbian

Like drinking water from a Flint, Mich., faucet, details of the state’s 2017-19 biennial budget gushed forth from Olympia at the end of the week to a public that was thirsty for news.

It took lawmakers 105 days of a regular session, plus three special sessions, to come up with the plan to spend $43.7 billion over the next two years on schools, safety and the general needs of state government. Most importantly, legislators think this budget will finally meet the state Supreme Court’s 2012 mandate to fully fund basic education (kindergarten through high school) as required by the state constitution.

It’s hard to instantly analyze a bill that was still being tinkered with just hours before it was to go into effect. So let’s look at what legislators said publicly as they negotiated the details:

… Sounds of crickets …

Here’s what the public testimony was as this bill came together:

… More crickets …

Rank-and-file members were told this, so they could share it with their constituents:

… Yep, crickets …

Yes, this most important plan, one that potentially affects our taxes immediately and our children for their entire lives, was negotiated by a small group without any public process. Even Gov. Jay Inslee didn’t have the secret handshake required to gain admittance. Legislators were required to vote yes almost immediately or forever be blamed for closing state parks on the Fourth of July and letting sex offenders roam free.

As the sediment begins to clear from this bill, it is difficult to tell if the glass is half-full or half-empty. According to The Associated Press, it adds $1.8 billion to public school spending, $618 million for pay raises for state employee union members, and $102 million for mental health.

Statewide property taxes will increase, but Senate Republican budget negotiator John Braun said 73 percent of the state’s taxpayers will actually wind up with a lower bill. That’s because beginning in 2019 local school levies will be reduced, and the levy proceeds will be limited to paying only for things outside the definition of basic education.

The first glance shows that teacher pay will increase, but local school boards will have flexibility on salaries. The minimum wage would be $40,000, and generally the most a teacher can earn would be $90,000, except that a district could pay certain high-demand teachers up to 10 percent more. State allocations for salaries would increase based on inflation.

Most importantly, taxpayers in Tekoa could know their kids are getting the same educational support as their peers in Tukwila, and that the property taxes are fairly assessed.

So there might be a lot of things to like in this bill. Much more analysis will be forthcoming, including the Supreme Court’s all-important review. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats got all they wanted, and that is generally a sign of good legislation.

But the fundamental problem remains: the most important budget reforms in decades were carried out without public knowledge or participation. This only increases our thirst for democratic, representative government.

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