Push will shortly come to shove when state budget-writers from the Democratic House and Republican Senate sit down to reconcile the gaping differences in their spending plans.
The two rival operating budgets reflect the two parties’ conflicting governing philosophies. The Democrats would spend more generously on social welfare programs and compensation for public unions; to do it, they would collect more than $1 billion in additional tax revenue to reach a total of $38.8 billion.
The Senate Republicans would do a creditable job funding public schools, higher education and mental health in their $38 billion plan, but they are trying to both spend $1.3 billion more on the schools and tell voters they blocked any new taxes.
When the two parties wind up polarized on an issue, the best policy is often found somewhere in the middle. We think that’s the case with taxes. The state can get by without all the new money the Democrats’ want. But some items the Republicans left out of their plan suggest that they haven’t found a way to write a no-new-tax budget this year without hurting important state priorities.
Let’s look at a few:
• Funding for Washington’s popular, heavily used state park system has been severely squeezed since the Great Recession. For lack of money, park conditions and custodial care have deteriorated. This would be the logical year to start repairing the damage. Yet park advocates say that the Senate plan would short the system by $24 million.
• Washington’s sole M.D. program outside Seattle is run in Spokane by the University of Washington School of Medicine. UW officials don’t think they can keep it alive with the $1.25 million a year the Senate has budgeted.
The House would spend $4.7 million a year, which would expand the graduating class from 40 to 60. Washington sorely needs those new doctors. It will be a long time before Washington State University can get a medical school up and operating.
• The Senate hasn’t been able to find the mere $1 million it would take to keep the statewide 2-1-1 system operating. The system is a clearinghouse for social services. People call 2-1-1 when they have desperate needs – to keep their homes heated, for example, or to find food or emergency dental care.
• The biggie: To move toward full funding of public education, Republicans were forced to grab nearly $300 million in expected revenues from legal marijuana sales. This is brand new money that was supposed to pay for drug abuse prevention, treatment and other programs to offset increased temptations to use marijuana, especially among youth.
The Senate’s inability to pay for these priorities – even with the influx of marijuana taxes – is evidence that it couldn’t really cover the education bump with existing revenue.
Some of the revenues proposed by Democrats, such as a sales tax on soft drinks and bottled water, are perfectly reasonable. Compromise is called for. Critical state services should not be sacrificed for the sake of bragging rights to “no new taxes” budget.