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In Our View: Plea for no tax increases fiscally responsible

The Columbian
Published: March 24, 2019, 6:03am

As legislators begin hammering out a state operating budget for the 2019-21 biennium, Sen. John Braun is making a plea for no tax increases.

For Braun, R-Centralia, a plea essentially is the extent of his power. He is the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which plays a big role in writing the budget, but with Democrats holding control of both legislative chambers, his influence is limited. That led him to make his case before The Columbian’s Editorial Board last week.

“We’re in great shape,” Braun said of the state’s finances. “We don’t need more taxes.”

Rather than being viewed as a partisan position, Braun’s view should be considered a fiscally responsible one. Thanks to a strong economy, the state government is expected to have a $3 billion surplus at the end of the current four-year budget cycle. On Wednesday, the Office of Financial Management released an updated forecast that predicts an additional $861 million between now and the middle of 2021.

Braun’s assertion is that the state has plenty of revenue for meeting essential needs.

Those needs are numerous — beginning with funding for K-12 public schools.

In 2017 and 2018, the Legislature reconfigured school funding to meet the mandate of the state Supreme Court’s decision in McCleary v. Washington. Although that increased state funding, it also placed a limit on the amount of money school districts can raise from local levies.

After threatened teacher strikes last summer, many districts reached agreements to provide teachers with significant raises. Now, districts are projecting budget shortfalls in coming years. The Evergreen district is bracing for a deficit as high as $18 million; Vancouver is projecting a $14.3 million shortfall.

Democrats are likely to seek a lift of the levy lid in order for districts to raise more money. “Are there deficits?” Braun said in his meeting with the Editorial Board. “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.”

That echoes a warning The Columbian issued editorially last year: “Don’t bargain away money you don’t have.” While budget deficits that could result in staff reductions are not ideal, they should have been foreseen by administrators during negotiations with teachers unions.

The levy lid was established in exchange for an increase in state funding. Lifting the lid now, when the agreement has barely taken effect, would poorly serve taxpayers and would open the door for a return to the inequities that led to the McCleary decision in the first place. Nobody is in the mood for McCleary 2.0.

Aside from discussions about school funding, there is likely to be wrangling over proposals for a carbon tax and a capital gains tax, both of which have long been supported by Gov. Jay Inslee. Depending upon the specifics, either tax could be beneficial. If a carbon tax helps reduce emissions throughout the state, it might be worthwhile; and a capital gains tax would tax money that is generated from wealth rather than toil (but there are valid questions about whether it would be constitutional in Washington).

Implementation of either tax, however, should be budget neutral, offset by reductions elsewhere, rather than used as a tool to increase revenue.

After all, Braun makes a good case that additional revenue is not needed. State government has all the money it needs to effectively serve the people of Washington.

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