Gov. Jay Inslee has proposed a budget plan for 2016 that hits several high notes that the Legislature ought to seriously consider in January.
His supplemental budget request would use funds from the state rainy day account to pay for the year’s record-setting wildfire costs — some $150 million of it unbudgeted. Inslee also proposes additional funds to cover rising healthcare costs for children, the elderly and disabled in the Medicaid program.
And he recommends more money for mental health treatment in response to federal court demands for better care of arrested subjects. State mental hospitals also are struggling to retain staffing and limit violence against staff and patients.
Inslee’s most controversial suggestion is to boost teacher salaries and pay for that by closing four controversial tax exemptions, worth roughly $100 million. These include ending a tax break for oil refineries, ending the sales tax break on bottled water, limiting a real-estate excise tax exemption used by banks in foreclosures and creating a sales-tax refund program to replace the sales-tax break automatically given to some out-of-state shoppers.
The new money would lift starting teachers’ pay to $40,000, or by roughly $4,300, affecting about 8,700 teachers. Inslee would provide 1 percent increases to other K-12 teachers and staff.
Both moves — the increased pay and the tax exemption closures — make sense in the big picture but will encounter plenty of push back in an election year.
That is because Inslee is a Democrat entering his final year of a four-year term next month, and he’s had a lot of difficulty getting Republicans controlling the Senate to seriously consider tax increases or closure of tax exemptions. The recent November election also trimmed House Democrats’ majority to just 50-48, making anything controversial even more difficult to pass.
But the teacher pay issue is important and deserves a fair hearing. The governor noted Thursday that Washington’s K-12 schools must add skilled teachers to meet court demands for smaller class sizes at a time the state is already facing a teacher shortage.
Higher pay and better support for starting teachers can make the profession more attractive. The governor’s plan would also expand mentoring for early career teachers who are prone to quitting in their first few years.
These are reasonable requests – and in the case of preparing for wildfires in 2016, it may be too modest.
Inslee has already heard from critics. Bill Bryant, the Republican running for governor in 2016, wants to reopen the two-year budget passed in June after a record-setting series of marathon special legislative sessions. He contends lawmakers can make cuts to pay for new outlays.
The Senate’s top budget writer, Andy Hill, said Inslee creates a deficit by 2019. He criticized Inslee for looking for tax revenue from closing exemptions that have failed to pass previously.
But the newly approved state budget was already predicted to fall into the red over the four-year term by 2019 by some $473 million, according to the state Office of Financial Management. It will be even further in deficit once the firefighting costs are added.
In an interview with our editorial board, Inslee said the state faces a $3.5 billion to $4 billion additional cost in 2017-19 to reduce the state’s reliance on voter-approved levies in order to comply with the Supreme Court’s orders in the McCleary school funding case.
Inslee said that until Hill and the GOP lay down a serious plan for raising that money, they have no business using the predicted shortfall in 2017 as an argument against considering his proposals.
He’s right. A discussion is warranted.