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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.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Taxpayers should share in good budget news

The Columbian
Published: February 28, 2020, 6:03am

Washington legislators received good news last week with an increase in the state government’s revenue forecast. Now they must work to turn that into good news for taxpayers.

State revenue through the middle of this year — halfway through the current two-year budget cycle — is projected to be $606 million more than previously expected. Total revenue is now projected at $52.3 billion for the two-year period, and the state is expected to have about $4.1 billion in reserves.

Officials say roughly half the revenue increase is due to an unanticipated increase in estate taxes. Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama, said another chunk came from added property-tax revenue. “I think the housing market has outperformed what any of us expected,” Orcutt said. “Because of this additional revenue being generated by property taxes, we should be looking at some property tax relief.”

Therein lies the question about how best to use the additional revenue for the benefit of taxpayers. The two-year budget approved last year is $52.4 billion, already the highest in state history, and lawmakers this year are tasked with passing a supplemental budget to fill in gaps of underfunding. They also will consider a capital construction budget for major projects.

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate — their party has solid majorities in both chambers — have proposed an additional $1 billion in state spending over the next 16 months. While the proposals have differences, they each seek to provide money for combating homelessness and climate change while also providing for the Washington College Grants Program, public schools and election security.

A proposed $100 million for climate projects does not specify how the money would be spent, leaving it to Gov. Jay Inslee and state officials to select projects. Inslee has emphasized a need to improve forest health, reduce ocean acidification and improve salmon habitat by fighting climate change. The Legislature also is considering a clean-fuels proposal supported by the governor and other measures designed to reduce carbon emissions.

With state government benefiting from a robust economy and strong revenue, now is the time to pass legislation that can have a meaningful impact on climate change. And while other budget items might also seem imperative and would benefit Washington residents, the same can be said for property-tax relief.

As Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, the chief budget writer for his party, said: “The lack of really meaningful tax relief in this plan is more evidence of the government greed we saw with the billions in unnecessary tax increases approved last year and the billion-dollar business-tax hike approved just a couple of weeks ago.”

In other words, just because the state government has unexpected revenue, it doesn’t need to spend all of it. If you found $2,000 between the couch cushions, you probably would not run out and immediately purchase a Peloton bike; you would assess your needs, spend some, and save the rest for a rainy day.

As Rep. Drew Stokesbary of Auburn, the ranking Republican on the Appropriations Committee, said, “I am disappointed the majority would spend every last dime instead of providing any tax relief or making long-term investments.”

Washington lawmakers are flush with cash now, thanks to smart management and the hard work of residents throughout the state. They should ensure that cash is spent — or saved — in a prudent manner for the long-term benefit of residents.