Little productivity, but this session will end on time

Contributing WriterMarch 5, 2014 

A legislative session that began with low expectations appears headed for on-time adjournment having met those expectations. It’s tempting to refer to the last few months in Olympia as a Seinfeld session, a legislative show about nothing. Tempting, but wrong.

Last week’s signing into law of the “Real Hope Act” wins the award for best dramatic moment. The legislation, also called the Dream Act, makes it possible for children who came to this country illegally with their parents to qualify for in-state tuition and apply for financial aid.

The measure passed with bipartisan support in both chambers, a rare across-the-aisles moment this year. Expanding opportunities for young people to continue their education is not nothing.

But there have been few such moments. Hopes for a transportation Kumbaya recede even as new funding plans emerge. But the prospects of an early budget agreement are uncharacteristically positive.

You’ll remember that lawmakers meet for 105 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years. The long session provides time for them to write the two-year state budget. Last year they set a contemporary record, taking 151 days and two special sessions to get the budget written.

With the help of a stable economy, slight improvement in tax collections, and the discipline of a four-year balanced budget requirement, the adopted budget requires little adjustment. Last week, the Senate and House each rolled out their versions of what’s called the supplemental budget.

The Senate passed its budget 41-8. That’s strong bipartisan endorsement of a plan that adds nearly $40 million to K-12 education, marking further progress on the state Supreme Court’s order to boost school spending. The Senate plan does not raise taxes and includes about $10 million in tax reductions.

The House supplemental comes in parts. There’s a base budget that generally matches the Senate’s bottom line spending. And there are separate bills to increase taxes and fund early learning programs and cost-of-living adjustments for teachers. (Senate Democrats also wanted to raise taxes to fund teacher COLAs.) The House will likely pass its budget early this week, possibly before you read this. Then negotiations begin.

Few legislators want a repeat of last year’s marathon. A special session is unnecessary and unlikely. The side that wants the least typically prevails in these negotiations. By that logic, the Senate will have the upper hand.

The tax hikes the House wants have been proposed before and rejected. I’ll mention a couple of them here: imposing the sales tax on bottled water, taxing recycled fuel and changing the tax exemption for sales to nonresidents.

The public repealed the bottled water tax in 2010 after the Legislature adopted it. I’ve not seen any clamor to reinstate it.

Taxing recycled fuel used by refineries appears to be justified only because, in the words of the Senate Democrats’ flyer, “Oil company profits are high enough already.” (Think for a minute how the state economic development folks will use the line in the marketing brochure: “Come to Washington, where politicians determine how high your profits should be.” It’s also misleading. The oil industry here is a heavily taxed, low-margin business.)

Retailers in border counties face a competitive challenge. The tax commission chaired by Bill Gates Sr., in 2002 concluded, “The combination of Washington’s high sales tax and the absence of a sales tax in Oregon causes retail trade and consequently sales tax revenues in the counties bordering Oregon and Idaho to be very sensitive to changes in tax rates.” Changing the rules to increase collections will further burden border retailers.

In the closing days of the session, we’ll hear a lot about how the Senate budget refuses to raise taxes to raise teacher pay, how repealing “loopholes” would help kids and satisfy the state Supreme Court. But it’s all too pat. The give-and-take reminds me of Civil War battlefield reenactments. Everyone knows what’s going to happen before the first blank is fired. There aren’t the votes for new taxes. Teacher COLAs won’t be funded

There’s no need to prolong this. The session can end on time. The arguments will continue through the November election.

To paraphrase Macbeth, if no more ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.

Bainbridge Island resident Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. Email him at rsdavis@simeonpartners.com.

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