The 2016 supplemental budget emerging from Olympia makes some good investments. But what took so long?
THE state Legislature deserves to be the butt of a familiar joke: They’d procrastinate, if only they could get around to it.
For the seventh time in three years, lawmakers treated the scheduled end of the legislative session like a yield sign, not a stop sign, and skidded straight into a special session. This time, it was 20 days of overtime, even though the stakes were low. Tuesday’s agreement on a one-year supplement to the state’s $38.2 billion two-year budget added less than one half of 1 percent.
The deal hewed to a familiar script since Republicans effectively took control of the Senate four years ago. Democrats, who control the House and governor’s mansion, opened negotiations high, demanding new revenue. Republicans held the line on new taxes. They delay and delay before settling to the right of center, using budget gimmicks to paper over their differences.
This time, the gimmicks included taking $227 million over coming years from a fund that pays for municipal bridges and sewer projects. It also wrongly wiped away $10 million to pay for performance audits of government agencies. Taxpayers want more efficiency, not a neutered watchdog.
Gov. Jay Inslee, facing re-election this fall, tried to speed up negotiations with a historic spree of 27 vetoes at the end the regular session. It was utterly ineffectual and showed the limits of Inslee’s power, even within his own Democratic Party. The Legislature overrode all 27 vetoes.
The final budget deal makes some strong, justified investments. There is $28 million for the fractured mental-health system and money to eliminate a backlog of untested rape kits. The House Democratic caucus smartly read the data on a startling rise in number of homeless students statewide and negotiated for $15 million in targeted investments for homeless-youth services.
The budget also balances over four years, despite Democrats’ efforts to eliminate that mechanism of sound financial planning.
But the budget does not touch the biggest challenge facing the Legislature: reforming the state’s education-financing model. The state Supreme Court has found it to be unconstitutional and levied fines now upward of $20 million. The budget doesn’t pay the fines. It delays a financial reckoning that requires fundamental reforms in school-district levies and in teacher compensation and collective bargaining. It also probably requires new revenue.
That tough work has been kicked to next year. And it should beg this question for voters: If the hard work wasn’t done, what took so long to reach this deal?