Matt Driscoll

Matt Driscoll: Budget writers eying pot revenue is business as usual in Olympia

You could have seen this coming a mile away. Ten miles away. A thousand miles away.

While it hasn’t stopped cries of disbelief and righteous indignation, there was nothing particularly surprising about budget plans emerging from both the state House and Senate that, to varying degrees, take tax revenue from Washington’s marijuana legalization under Initiative 502 and divert it to areas the initiative never intended.

The Senate’s plan is the more drastic of the two, doing away with I-502’s Dedicated Marijuana Fund and using the expected pot windfall to fund education in accordance with the landmark state Supreme Court ruling known as McCleary. The House, on the other hand, grabs more than $140 million and uses it for Medicaid — money lawmakers would have to scrounge up from the general fund otherwise.

As the nearly 56 percent of Washingtonians that voted in favor of recreational marijuana legalization may remember, the excise tax revenue generated from the legal pot market is supposed to go to a very specific set of earmarks largely related to public health, research, and substance abuse prevention. These provisions, while not make-or-break, likely factored into why so many citizens felt comfortable voting for legalization.

I-502 was carefully crafted to be a precise balance between the legalization of an illicit drug, and the creation of a public health and outreach effort designed to prevent Washington from devolving into total reefer madness. It’s also supposed to generate telling research and evaluations, so we can better understand exactly what we’ve done in this brave new world and make decisions based on reality.

It’s an admirable objective, and one people voted for, so it wasn’t shocking when voices as far ranging as The Seattle Times editorial board and the ACLU sounded the alarm when budget writers started pouncing. The Times warned lawmakers against being tempted by the “candy dish” of pot revenue, while the ACLU sent a letter to lawmakers last week urging them not to “defy the will of the voters by reallocating I-502 tax revenue.”

Valid points all around. Circle the wagons. Raise a stink.

Just don’t expect Olympia to listen.

Forgive the cynicism, but this is what legislators — and more specifically those responsible for crafting budgets — do. It’s in their DNA.

“Budgeteers are always looking for money, and they don’t care much about details,” says Allen Hayward, who served as senior legal counsel with the state House from 1979-2012. These days he’s an legislative historian of sorts, having recently published an autobiography examining his time at the Capitol.

He knows this phenomenon well.

“The budget guys tend to be very, very powerful, and they tend to all believe — whether they’re Republican or Democrat — that money is fungible,” Hayward says.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this Olympia tradition comes from the landmark tobacco settlement of 1998, in which then-Attorney General Christine Gregoire won a $206 billion settlement with the five biggest cigarette makers on behalf of 46 states.

Washington’s take was to be billions of dollars spread over 25 years, money which lawmakers swore up and down would be spent on anti-smoking campaigns.

The promise didn’t last long.

By 2002, Gov. Gary Locke — a former budget guy himself — signed off on a law creating the Tobacco Settlement Authority, an agency given the go-ahead to issue revenue bonds backed by roughly 30 percent of Washington’s tobacco take. The move generated a lump sum of $450 million for the state — an influx of cash in budget-strapped times that went straight to whatever lawmakers deemed worthy.

Spoiler: In the wake of the dot-com crash, most of it went to fill budget holes, not smoking.

Granted, relying on the tobacco settlement money was a safer bet than on projected marijuana tax revenues, but the parallel still stands.

Again, this is what legislators do. It’s in their DNA.

As we watch this latest debate over pot revenue play out in Olympia, we’d be wise to keep this in mind. Sure, there are a thousand reasons why budget writers this session should keep their grubby hands off the money, most of them valid.

But based on history, expecting them to actually do so seems a tad unrealistic.