Washington’s state budget is in such strong shape that the Legislature can make strategic investments without raising taxes, the top Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee said Tuesday.
“This is in many ways the best situation we have been in budget-wise this century,” Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said during a meeting with The Columbian Editorial Board. “Revenue has grown tremendously, and we have a very strong economy in Washington.”
Braun, first elected in 2012, represents the 20th Legislative District, which includes a slice of north Clark County. He serves on the Senate committee that plays a big role in writing the state’s operating and capital budgets, albeit in a limited role since Democrats have majorities in both legislative chambers.
Washington is on course to have a $3 billion budget surplus at the end of the next four years without cutting any services, Braun said.
“There should be no reason to raise taxes to get this budget done,” he said.
His rosy outlook for the state’s budget comes at the same time local school districts are searching to plug projected shortfalls in their upcoming 2019-2020 budgets.
Vancouver Public Schools faces a $14.3 million deficit. Camas School District is studying ways to address an $8.2 million shortfall. Evergreen Public Schools, Clark County’s largest school district, is bracing for a deficit that could be as high as $18 million.
Some school superintendents have been critical of the Legislature’s response to the McCleary decision. In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled that the state was failing in its constitutional duty to fund education. The court closed the case last year following an overhaul of the state’s school funding that injected nearly $1 billion into school districts, but superintendents don’t believe the state has done enough.
Braun said he believes the Legislature should act if there is a “legitimate” funding need, such as for special education, but he wasn’t ready to say lawmakers should help ease deficits for local school districts. Every school district in the state has seen its budget go up considerably, by as much as 30 to 50 percent over a six-year time frame, he said.
“Are there deficits?” he asked. “Yes, but I think that has more to do with the bargaining situation we went through last summer. … Certainly the superintendents and school boards have some blame there.”
Braun said legislators previously limited growth in teacher salaries to 3 percent.
“When the majority flipped in ’18,” he said, referring to Democrats wrestling control of the Senate, “they took that out and basically opened the gate.”
Braun criticized pending legislation that would increase property tax authority for school districts, which he said would result in disparate school funding in Washington.
“We go right back to unequal levies around the state,” he said.
Every school district in the state says it cannot survive without raising local tax levies, Braun said.
“There’s nothing constitutionally wrong about local levies,” he said. “The problem is we have, collectively as a state … spent that (levy) money on basic education, and the state has used that as an excuse to underfund (education).”
Braun devoted most of his comments to emphasizing a positive state budget outlook. The state budget has increased by $14 billion, or 45 percent, since 2013, which is more than double the growth in personal income during the same period, he said.
Since the 2019 Legislature began in January, lawmakers have received good financial news, namely revenues that exceeded projections by $208 million and lower costs that have saved an additional $704 million, Braun said. More positive news could be coming today when the state releases its revenue forecast, he said.
“We’re in great shape,” Braun said. “We don’t need more taxes.”