A second special session of the Washington Legislature ends this week. It would be folly to let a state government shutdown begin at month’s end.
Lawmakers must pass a budget by June 30 to avoid it. With Senate Republicans and House Democrats holding few face-to-face discussions on critical state spending and taxation issues, the possibility of a shutdown gets more likely every day.
Basically this fight didn’t need to play out this way. It pits the Democratic-majority state House against a Republican-controlled Senate, but fundamentally it is ideology on the GOP side that is blocking progress.
The Democrats have been realistic about the need for new revenue. Republicans have dug in with fervor against new taxes — with one self-serving exception.
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The GOP favors jacking up property taxes on mostly urban areas that have sky-high property valuations, housing affordability issues and Democratic representation. That won’t work morally or politically. Their members are justify this overall tax increase by telling their supporters that it actually means tax cuts in their districts.
So far, Democrats have showed some willingness to compromise. First, Gov. Jay Inslee suggested House Democrats pull a capital gains tax proposal off the table. Inslee, a Democrat who had proposed the tax, was acknowledging it would probably not pass in the Senate where Republicans adamantly oppose it.
Inslee also pointed out that the GOP’s tax shift to pay for K-12 schools — in effect shifting basic education burdens from property-poor districts to property rich areas like Seattle — could not pass in the House.
Perhaps lacking the power of Jedi mind tricksters, Inslee has not moved the parties off high center.
Notices of temporary layoffs go out this week to state employees if there is no budget deal in the next few days. About 31,700 workers face furloughs, many of them in South Sound.
Starting June 30: closure of all state parks and eviction of campers. This additionally means costly cancellations and refunds for about 11,000 park reservations.
Starting July 1: no meal services for about 50,000 elderly Washingtonians and shuttering of an array of programs that help families, kids in preschool, the disabled and the jobless.
Payments to healthcare providers for 2.5 million residents would stop or be delayed. Routine state disease tests would stop. PTSD treatments for about 2,000 military veterans and families would stop.
Meantime, school districts eager to plan for the beginning of a new school year in September would postpone staffing decisions even longer.
Early approval of a transportation budget assures that some licensing, State Patrol and transportation work carries on. So-called essential government functions would also continue. For example, state prisons remain staffed even without a budget, but most of the 18,000 released offenders under community supervision would not be monitored.
Democrats seem to be moving toward the GOP’s tighter cap on local property-tax levies. The state Supreme Court ruled that heavy reliance on levies to subsidize the costs of basic education is unconstitutional. It’s hard to see how the court accepts a K-12 plan that lets rich school districts go back to enticing top teachers with higher salaries funded by levies.
A middle way is needed that also allocates K-12 funds in better ways. Extra money must go to help students and districts that face high, costlier learning challenges. Republicans support an overly complicated approach. Also needed are bigger salary rewards for teaching in tough environments and cities with high housing costs.
Lastly, a middle way means increasing state revenue. Lawmakers must pony up for reasonable government services. This includes cost-of-living pay increases for state workers.
One policy change that can help plug budget holes is a carbon tax. House Environmental Committee chair Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Seattle, said recently that the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement “stiffened the resolve” of Democratic members who want action on climate.
Whether it's that tax or others, Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, must signal which revenue alternatives he'll allow to be voted on by the full Senate.
That assurance would free moderates in his GOP caucus as well as Democrats to do the necessary but politically unpleasant work of raising revenues. Someone needs to do it, and our state needs a budget agreement. Support from a simple majority is enough.
When threats of a state government shutdown loomed in 2013 and 2015, each was resolved with deals that ultimately raised revenues. Each budget won overwhelming support from Republicans and Democrats.
But earnest, bipartisan work on those agreements began months before Doomsday. This year, time’s up.