We hate to break the bad news, but the Democrats in Olympia will have to downsize their ambitions for new taxes to get a new state budget passed.
Tax proposals have been bouncing around the House of Representatives since the regular legislative session started in January. One — a carbon tax — was quite a reach on short notice. Another — a capital gains tax — would have made Washington’s tax code less regressive by shifting more of the burden to the well-off. Another — on soft drinks and bottled water — made sense on health and environmental grounds.
Three hitches, though:
No. 1: Unexpected money has been pouring into state coffers since February. The biggest windfall arrived on May 11, when state economists projected an additional $400 million in revenues through mid-2017.
No. 2: Washingtonians elected a Republican majority to the state Senate in November.
No. 3: So far, House Democrats haven’t made a political commitment — through a floor vote — to a specific tax package.
Senate Republicans would love to maneuver vulnerable opponents into a pro-tax vote, of course, but the Democrats’ seeming lack of clarity has certainly made for a good talking point.
Senate leaders meanwhile say they’ve already taken their own tough vote, for a $15 billion transportation package that would impose a variety of fees and a higher gas tax. The House is still sitting on its version of that bill.
It’s time for lawmakers to compromise, pass both the operating and transportation budgets, and call it a year.
In recent weeks, with the money promised by the May forecast, Senate budget writers have moved closer to the $38.8 billion spending plan their Democratic counterparts in the House released in March.
The Republican plan released last week meets the Democrats part-way and fixes some serious problems in the Senate’s initial budget, including an abandonment of the University of Washington’s medical school program in Spokane and the looting of a fund meant to pay for efforts against marijuana abuse by juveniles and other health priorities.
The Senate has more to give. For example, it adds $66 million to compensation for state workers — but demands that collective bargaining be done in public sessions. That makes about as much sense as organized labor’s demand that President Obama advertise America’s negotiating positions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
But House leaders will have to recognize that outside the 206 area code, there’s no groundswell of public support for higher taxes.
Gov. Jay Inslee could conceivably engineer a compromise spending plan. He’s told House and Senate budget writers to start bargaining in his own office this week.
Inslee’s past interventions haven’t gone over well with Republican leaders, who speak with nostalgia of his Democratic predecessor, Chris Gregoire. Gregoire was a master at proposing tradeoffs, identifying common ground and brokering agreements that gave all sides enough of what they wanted.
Republicans don’t view Inslee as a broker. Visiting The News Tribune on Thursday, Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, described the governor as a “cheerleader for the left” in budget talks.
Those talks resume Monday. If the governor aspires to be a genuine mediator and deal-maker, this would be a good time to demonstrate it. Suggestion: Don’t start things off by handing down a tax ultimatum.