Inslee’s ‘twofer’ budget for 2018 doubly necessary

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee takes questions from reporters last week after unveiling his supplemental budget proposal at the Capitol in Olympia.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee takes questions from reporters last week after unveiling his supplemental budget proposal at the Capitol in Olympia. AP photo

Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposed budget for the year ahead starts in the most essential place: It meets the mess left behind by legislators this year when they missed another deadline — what was supposed to be their final deadline — to fully fund K-12 schools.

Lawmakers blamed the delay on the complicated timeline for shifting to state property tax collections from a locally based model. Their excuse may be valid, but it didn’t stop the state Supreme Court from issuing an ultimatum: Plug a $1 billion hole by April 9 or risk additional sanctions under the court’s 2012 McCleary decision.

Enter Inslee’s supplemental budget, the bulk of which targets education and mental health. It’s a plan driven less by politics and more by necessity.

Republicans may balk at Inslee’s proposal to dip into the state rainy day fund in 2018, but guess what? It’s raining out there.

That steady pitter patter in Olympia is the sound of : 1) The Supreme Court calling for immediate action to fund teacher and administrator salaries and 2) The feds threatening to withhold millions of dollars if safety and capacity problems at Western State Hospital aren’t addressed.

Tapping $950 million from financial reserves wouldn’t render the state broke; it would leave $760 million in unrestricted cash reserves and another $1.4 billion for more rain, should it occur.

Inslee calls his proposal — which reimburses the reserves by instituting a carbon tax, carbon fees or a combination — a “twofer.” Think of it as a constitutional win on McCleary, wrapped in a fiscally and environmentally sound pay-back proposal.

If passed, Washington gets an education funding stopgap and a new tool to curb carbon emissions from fossil fuels. A twofer, indeed.

Those keeping score know this isn’t the governor’s first attempt to pass a carbon tax. (See his cap-and-trade plan, circa 2015, rejected by both Democrats and Republicans.)

Details on the latest proposal are fuzzy — Inslee only says it won’t involve cap-and-trade — but come Jan. 8, when the Legislature reconvenes, the governor promises smart carbon-taxes and/or fees in a package worthy of bipartisan support.

Republicans might not buy into Inslee’s evangelical environmentalism, but they might just come to see his proposal for the balanced-budget cash cow it is. There’s little dispute the state needs revenue, and when pitted against a less desirable new tax, a carbon-pricing plan looks pretty good.

The only thing certain in this off-year session — the Legislature is scheduled to meet just 60 days — is that there’s limited time for political hijinks, especially when a $4 billion state construction budget languishes in limbo. Inslee wants to see that budget adopted in the first week of the session. Do you believe in miracles?

When we left the Republicans last summer, they were refusing to pass the capital budget unless given quid pro quo relief on the Supreme Court’s Hirst decision, a water-rights ruling that restricts development in some rural and suburban areas.

Blocking a capital budget was not only unprecedented, real people suffer the consequences. For the sake of functional democracy, leaders from both parties must eliminate this tactic. As Inslee told our Editorial Board this week: “Hostage taking cannot be standard operating procedure.”

The political landscape now looks different than six months ago; in 2018, Inslee’s Democratic allies will control both chambers by a slim majority. Regardless of party, lawmakers must do what they were elected to do: Fund the state’s paramount duty (education) and a streamlined list of other core priorities.

Near the bottom of Inslee’s supplemental budget is $3 million for Puget Sound’s southern resident Orcas; if there’s one thing Washingtonians of all stripes should be able to agree on, it’s saving our whales.

For lawmakers feeling out the new power dynamics in 2018, we recommend starting not with Hirst or McCleary. Start with something easier. Start with the whales and work your way up.

Read it online

More information about the governor’s proposed 2018 supplemental budget is available in a user-friendly and customizable format on the Budget Office’s website.