Soon to begin his third four-year term as Washington’s governor, Jay Inslee is no stranger to what happens to the governor’s biannual budget request: At best, it gets an overhaul on a scale that would turn the Titanic into a modern cruise ship. At worst, it sinks.
Inslee’s latest is due the same fate, but it contains several intriguing elements that deserve a closer look and debate. First, the governor deserves praise for crafting a forward-looking budget proposal that embraces environmental protection and social justice at a time when it would be too easy to blame the pandemic and just do less with less.
Although not a new idea, Inslee is pitching the idea of a cap-and-trade tax on carbon emissions. The proceeds would be used for transportation and clean energy projects. The governor would also create a clean fuels program similar to ones in British Columbia, California and Oregon. In the vacuum of leadership created by the Trump administration, both ideas deserve study and consideration.
Another idea worth considering is Inslee’s proposal to spend $28.5 million on two offices that would address equity and systemic racism. First, the governor would spend $26 million to establish an independent investigatory agency to examine use of excessive force by police. While we recognize use of force by police can be necessary and justified, national, regional and local stories have called multiple incidents into question. An independent investigatory body would provide oversight and assurance to the public.
The governor would also spend $2.5 million to fund the state Equity Office created by the 2020 Legislature. It would help state agencies develop and implement diversity plans. Although state voters last year rejected a ban on affirmative action, the office is a way to make government better and fairer without setting quotas that voters rejected.
Inslee’s budget would add $10 million to the state’s COVID-19 immigrant relief fund, which previously received $62 million in federal funds. Immigrants are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, and are less likely to be eligible for other assistance. Just this month, the state fined an Okanogan County business more than $2 million after two immigrant workers died of the virus in its farmworkers camp.
Of course, there are some non-starters in the governors’ budget proposal too. Inslee proposes a capital gains tax that would collect 9 percent of profits in excess of $25,000 ($50,000 for joint filers) on sales of certain assets, such as stocks and bonds. In an interview with The Columbian’s editorial board, the governor said the tax would apply to fewer than the wealthiest 2 percent of Washingtonians, and argued that it would be a way to eliminate some of the disparities of Washington’s tax system, which is one of the nation’s most regressive.
He has a point. The state’s taxation system is regressive, because it relies heavily on sales taxes, which are paid disproportionately by people with lower incomes. But a capital gains tax is, at its heart, an income tax, and that currently is not allowed in Washington. If citizens want an income — er, capital gains — tax, we need to vote on it.
Only a few months ago, as the depth of the pandemic became evident, it looked like the state budget — and economy — would be a disaster. Inslee’s budget proposal reflects that, thankfully, those nightmares have not become reality. Instead, legislators will have the duty to take the governor’s proposal and improve it for the benefit of all Washingtonians.