House budget lays out a good vision

House Democratic budget writers unveiled a spending plan last week that is both realistic and smart. If it were passed into law, it would put Washington back on track for crucial investments in schools — from early childhood education to K-12 and higher education.

Like Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal in December, it raises new revenue and takes a step toward rebalancing the tax code by adding a tax that lands more on the wealthy than the middle class. It is grounded in the reality that programs and personnel cost money.

The Democrats’ plan relies on $1.5 billion in new tax revenue, including the capital gains tax. It also restores some elements of the safety net that were cut during the desperate budget-cutting of the Great Recession years, although critics already are raising voices to say it doesn’t do enough.

In one major area, mental health funding, the budget is a vast improvement — in no small measure because the state got sued and lost. This should finally end the practice of warehousing mentally ill people in hospital emergency rooms.

Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, and his team including House Finance Committee Chairman Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, deserve credit for facing the hard truths of the state’s fiscal needs. Although they failed to incorporate Gov. Jay Inslee’s effort to put a price on carbon emissions linked to global warming, the Democrats did propose ending a tax break used by oil refineries.

The Democrats also picked up a theme advanced by Republicans like Rep. Drew MacEwen of Union: giving tax relief to small businesses by creating a larger exemption from taxation of small businesses’ gross revenues. They replace some of the lost funds with a surcharge on service businesses — unfortunately setting up a fight between classes of businesses. The relief also doesn’t go as far as MacEwen sought, and the tax surcharge also hits many relatively small enterprises.

Critics will complain that House Democrats’ nearly $39 billion spending plan doesn’t make any big budget cuts, but there’s not a lot left to cut after the recession.

It remains to be seen how much of the plan — and the new taxes needed to support it — can pass in the House, where Democrats have a narrow 51-47 majority. The majority needs 50 votes to approve bills, and that’s not much margin for error when it comes to a tax vote.

The Senate, with its Republican majority, will be much tougher on taxes and on Tuesday outlined a nearly $38 billion spending plan that appeared to avoid raising them. Led by their able budget writer, Sen. Andy Hill of Redmond, the Republicans outlined a rival plan that spends about $1 billion less than the Democrats, invests similar amounts in K-12 schools to answer a court ruling, cuts college tuition by 25 percent over two years, rejects labor contracts for state workers but offers them across the board raises of $1,000 per year, and makes other interesting adjustments.

We look forward to studying the Senate plan closer and trust there are ideas and savings the House can incorporate into its plan.

Everyone can weigh in and complain about specific tax ideas in the Democrats’ plan or about line items in either budget. But it’s important to recognize the bigger picture here — that investments need to be made in schools, the workforce and the social safety net. And the tax system needs to be fairer and take in more funds.

On those counts, the House Democrats did a good job.