In February, as lawmakers were updating the state budget for the current biennium, The Columbian editorially offered a gentle reminder: “Just because you have money, that doesn’t mean you have to spend it.”
But spend it they did. The Democratic-led Legislature passed a supplemental budget that brought state spending to $64.1 billion for the two-year period that began in July 2021. Gov. Jay Inslee touted “big progress” on investments in housing, reducing poverty, behavioral health and pandemic recovery.
Now, with a new state revenue forecast projecting big increases in the coming years, we repeat the mantra: You don’t have to spend it.
As Senate Republican Leader John Braun of Centralia said: “It’s ridiculous for the Legislature to be sitting on a growing mountain of cash while families across our state are struggling to afford the basics and watching their buying power shrink because of inflation.”
The revenue forecast, released Wednesday, predicts the state will collect $1.46 billion more than previously expected during the biennium, bringing the total to $63.2 billion. Projected revenues for the two-year period beginning in July 2023 have increased to $66 billion.
The fact that revenue has increased despite a pandemic that could have been crippling — with assistance from federal stimulus payments — is a testament to smart leadership throughout Washington.
A recent study by WalletHub determined that our state has the best economy in the nation. Washington ranked third in economic activity, seventh in economic health and second in innovation potential, continuing a string of success that frequently sees the state ranked among the best economies by economic analysts.
That is not an accident; it is a result of policies that for years have allowed our workers to innovate, be productive and make effective use of our ports and natural resources. A strong economy boosts sales tax collections, property tax collections and a variety of fees and taxes paid by businesses — adding to the state coffers and paying for programs that benefit all Washington residents.
In the wake of the latest revenue forecast, it will be tempting for lawmakers to spend their bounty when they convene in January. Further government attention is needed to combat climate change, curb homelessness, improve infrastructure, strengthen education, deal with an ongoing opioid crisis, prevent and suppress wildfires, reform policing and make higher education more affordable.
There always are worthy programs that can benefit from increased spending. But there also are good reasons to return some of the money to taxpayers — the people who generate that revenue.
Property tax relief, a sales tax reduction, and a reduction in the business and occupation tax all should be on the table. As The Columbian wrote editorially earlier this year: “Relief for taxpayers would demonstrate that elected officials remember who they are working for.”
One topic that should not be discussed is a reduction to the state gas tax. On Wednesday, President Joe Biden said he would ask Congress for a three-month suspension of the federal gas tax in response to high gas prices. Despite the pain of those prices, any plan that encourages more driving when climate change must be viewed as a crisis should be rejected.
Even if that option is eliminated in Washington, lawmakers still have plenty of ways to share their good fortune with the public. After all, they don’t have to spend it.