Politics & Government

No gaps, no drama expected in Inslee's budget

Every year over the course of the Great Recession and the slow recovery, Olympia has gathered just before Christmas for the answer to the question: How would the governor balance the budget?

But for the first time in six years, it’s December and the budget is already in balance.

Drama should be minimal Tuesday as Gov. Jay Inslee unveils his supplemental budget for next year.

“It seems to me that having a modest little supplemental that doesn’t have a huge deficit attached to it is kind of a nice thing,” said Inslee’s budget director, David Schumacher.

With no deficit to tame, the normal rhythms of budgeting can return to Olympia.

In an even-numbered year like 2014, that means lawmakers return for what is supposed to be 60 days to make adjustments to the second half of their two-year budget.

Don’t look for massive new spending. State agencies and interest groups have long wish lists, but Inslee doesn’t have a lot of money to propose spreading around.

If all assumptions pan out — not a sure thing — there’s less than $400 million to cushion $33.5 billion in spending in the state’s main budget that funds schools, health care, social services and the like.

Expect Inslee to propose about $200 million in new spending. But three-quarters of that is needed just to handle growth in existing programs and fix overly optimistic assumptions, Schumacher said.

Inslee is not proposing new tax revenue, he said.

Tax increases are a tall order in a divided Legislature and in an election year. That’s especially true with lawmakers separately considering a gas tax increase to fund roads.

Major new spending to address Washington’s underfunded public schools would wait until next year in Inslee’s plan.

Earlier this year, Inslee and lawmakers started chipping away at a multibillion-dollar court mandate emerging from what’s known as the McCleary case. They added roughly an extra $1 billion to basic education in a budget that for the first time in years avoided major cuts or tax increases, except for targeting two tax breaks related to recent court decisions. Instead lawmakers relied, in part, on raiding funds and drawing down federal money through the Affordable Care Act.

School advocates want more. State Superintendent of Public Instruction Randy Dorn calls for a 2014 infusion of $461 million for basic education in connection with the McCleary case. And outside the area defined by lawmakers as basic education, the state teachers union is again asking for cost-of-living raises its members have missed since the recession bore down.

Dealing with school funding in the next few years could be just as difficult as the years of deficits.

“This doesn’t mean that the problem’s over,” Schumacher said.