A to-do list for the Legislature’s special session.
Gov. Jay Inslee put the right frame around budget negotiations that are the focus of the 30-day special session convening Wednesday in Olympia.
The Democrat-led House and Republican-led Senate must “start moving toward each other’s position,” Inslee said last week. That means the left-leaning House budget, which is $1.5 billion more than the Senate, must reduce spending. And the more conservative Senate should move away from it’s “no new revenue” talking point and find the will to raise some taxes.
Those negotiations should start immediately. The Senate’s lead budget-writer, Andy Hill, R-Redmond, has delayed talks until the House passed all the tax increases included in its budget. That line in the sand is unproductive for what voters want — a swift end to the overtime session.
The extra month in Olympia gives time to work out a few other hard knots that have defied a solution in the first 105 days.
• Most pressing is a new school-financing system. Underfunding from the state has shifted the burden to local levies, leaving a wide disparity between property-rich and poor school districts. The state Supreme Court’s McCleary ruling mandates a new, more equitable plan.
Democrats and Republicans in the Senate each propose complex structural changes, while leaders in the House propose studying it and coming back next year. This should be the year to make the change. A new financing system should even out inequities while imposing a statewide teacher salary scale that acknowledges wide disparity in the costs of living.
The governor could help here by acknowledging the need for such sweeping reform and helping find a solution. Both budgets include a justified cost-of-living adjustment for teachers, but the House benefit package is excessive.
• Both the House and Senate passed versions of the Early Start Act, which expands high-quality early education programs, and proposed increases in state spending.
Wisely, both houses agree that further investment will provide returns for years to come. The House and Senate are about $127 million apart in proposed funding. More is better in this category but a compromise can be found.
• The Legislature passed, and Inslee signed, a law to reconcile the state’s largely unregulated medical marijuana system with the now-legal recreational system. But lawmakers have not taken enough action to make sure the merger will be successful. Negotiators must break through an impasse on HB 2136, which would simplify marijuana taxes and help state-licensed stores quash the black market.
The final bill should give municipalities that open their borders to these stores a share of state marijuana taxes and should mirror state liquor laws in requiring a vote of the people in a jurisdiction before a marijuana ban could be imposed.
• As Inslee suggests, a final deal should include additional tax revenue. The Senate budget admirably attempts to stretch existing revenues, but it has too many gaps to be sustainable. Among the problems is an underfunding of the state health care exchange and an unwise financing scheme for local infrastructure projects.
To avoid perpetuating the regressivity of the sales tax, the Legislature should look at a small capital gains tax with restrictions.
The volatility of the tax revenue is a concern. A final budget deal could set aside money in peak years in a locked savings account, accessible only with a supermajority, to smooth out down years.
Meet in the middle, lawmakers.