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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: Lawmakers’ budget process lacks transparency

The Columbian
Published: April 30, 2023, 6:03am

The final days of a typical legislative session are chaotic and hectic, with bills and budgets being subjected to last-minute negotiations. This year was no different, requiring some time for observers to process what went on — and what didn’t.

So, one week after the close of the 105-day session in Olympia, we shall try to offer some perspective.

Most notably, lawmakers failed to address the state’s drug laws. What is the appropriate balance between treatment and punishment for those caught with dangerous substances? Democrats, who hold the majority in both legislative chambers, were unable to agree on an answer. The result was that much-needed legislation failed to pass.

The Columbian’s Editorial Board addressed this issue on Wednesday, so we will not belabor the point — except to repeat that Gov. Jay Inslee should call a special session of the Legislature, and that lawmakers must reinforce that illegal drugs are, indeed, illegal.

Legislators did, however, manage to pass a $69.2 billion state operating budget for the next two years. According to House Democrats, the budget includes $4.7 billion in new spending, leaves $3 billion in reserve accounts and does not include any broad tax increases.

Including spending increases that already had been approved, the budget marks a $10 billion increase over the previous biennial budget.

Of course, lawmakers are not required to spend all of the revenue that is expected to be available over the next two years. But strong arguments can be made that the state has pressing needs and that attention to those needs can improve the quality of life for Washingtonians. Among the increases is a boost to education funding, with a focus on special education.

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, the top Republican on the Ways & Means Committee, said she had hoped to see tax relief in the budget, but she lauded some of the provisions. “One of the priorities for our caucus was special education, and there is historic funding for that in this budget,” Wilson told Crosscut.com.

The budget also includes provisions designed to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. About $2 billion will go toward boosting the adoption of electric cars, bikes and heat pumps, build solar power projects and fund other efforts. Some of the funding will come from the state’s cap-and-trade program, which took effect this year and earned $300 million in the initial auction of carbon credits.

Critics argue that a single state can do little to combat climate change. But Washington leaders are right to recognize the economic opportunities provided by a transition to a green economy. Reducing emissions is not only a moral imperative, it also can be economically beneficial and attract innovative companies to our state.

Meanwhile, lawmakers also placed much attention on increasing the housing stock as a way to reduce homelessness. Several bills addressed zoning regulations and empowered county and city governments to help increase mid-level housing.

Amid all this, frustration remains over the process that forges the state budget every two years. This year, a proposal was not released by legislative leaders until the day before the end of the session, leaving rank-and-file lawmakers — and the public — little time to process it.

Out of a desire to improve transparency and reduce the chaos, lawmakers should be able to give the budget as much consideration as they do more mundane proposals.