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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

In Our View: State budget process in need of transparency

The Columbian
Published: May 9, 2019, 6:03am

More than a week after lawmakers wrapped up their 2019 session, the guess is that even political junkies are still wading through the $54.2 billion biennial budget passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature. Heck, we’re still trying to figure out where our taxes will be going over the next two years, and we get paid to do this.

Keeping up with the Legislature can be daunting for citizens interested in performing their civic duty by paying attention to the goings on in Olympia. That is particularly true when it comes to the budget, which typically is kept under wraps until the final days of the session.

That brings up the crux of this editorial: Legislative leaders should adjust how they do business, providing more transparency and more debate and more public engagement. Passing spending bills in the dark of night during the final days of the session is no way to run state government.

Yet that is what happened this year. In the end, lawmakers passed a dizzying array of tax increases in putting together the largest budget in state history. Despite a surge in state revenue created by a strong economy, the Legislature was unable to live within its means. The two-year budget, which goes into effect later this year, represents an 18 percent increase in spending over the current biennium.

Much of that increase goes to increases in salaries and benefits for public employees, whose contracts are negotiated between unions and the governor’s office before being sent to the Legislature for either an up-or-down vote. As The Columbian has argued editorially in the past, the public should be kept abreast of offers and counteroffers during negotiations with the unions. After all, it is our money that is on the table.

Among the benefits in the new contracts is an insurance benefit for part-time school workers, who will receive full medical coverage for working as little as 630 hours per year, according to The Seattle Times. That is the kind of budgetary item that should receive public scrutiny before the fact, rather than after.

Another item that received scant consideration is a sharp increase to the business and occupation tax paid by out-of-state banks. By raising the tax from 1.5 percent to 2.7 percent, lawmakers expect to increase revenue by $133 million over the next biennium.

Increasing the tax might or might not be a good idea. But introducing and passing it in the final 48 hours of the session, with little input from stakeholders, is an affront to the notion of responsible governance. “It’s an enormous new tax on a significant part of our economy; it deserves more careful deliberation before we put it into law,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, a chief Republican budget writer.

The bill was introduced as a “title-only” bill, which allows lawmakers to keep the details of proposed legislation a secret until they choose to reveal those details. That practice should be halted in the name of transparency.

Most important, legislative leaders should end the absurd practice of leaving the budget until the last minute. Negotiations take place throughout the session, but the results are not revealed to the public until the last minute. The state operating budget, which is devised during odd-year sessions, is the biggest issue facing lawmakers every other year. Therefore, it takes primacy among taxpayers and should be open to intense scrutiny and lengthy debate.

The public should have time during the legislative session to wade through budget proposals, not spend weeks after the fact trying to figure out what happened.