More than halfway into a special session, Washington lawmakers remain locked in a political stare-down over taxes. No way, says the Republican side. Yes way, say the Democrats. Gov. Jay Inslee is now saying yes to halfway.
Remarkably, Senate Republicans and House Democrats were still explaining their budget proposals to each other last week. What about finding places they can compromise? Well, that comes later — perhaps in the budgetary afterlife where we’re all millionaires grateful to pay a capital-gains tax.
Back in the here-and-now, lawmakers are 2½ weeks into the 30-day special session that became essential because they couldn’t find agreement during a 105-day regular session. As they did two months ago, the two parties still agree roughly on spending $1.3 billion or $1.4 billion for K-12 schools in response to the Supreme Court’s contempt order for failing to fully fund basic education.
Beyond that, Republicans controlling the Senate have been refusing to negotiate or consider any new taxes — while coyly suggesting Democrats ought to take politically risky votes to approve their tax proposals, originally at $1.5 billion. The GOP absurdly wants this vote before there is any inter-chamber discussion of compromises or taxes.
The House Democrats, in turn, are jabbing at the follies inside the Senate’s budget, which spends about $1 billion more than the state expects to receive in revenue during the next two years. This from the Republican Party that espouses fiscal responsibility — or used to.
Among its sins, the GOP plan raids $200 million from a public works projects fund and then uses bonds to replace the money. It also requires Inslee’s cut-weary agencies to miraculously find $65 million in new efficiencies. It skimps on food aid for the poor and pay for workers and commits other indignities — all in the name of avoiding taxes so the 2016 election slogans can stay intact.
Of course, what’s the rush here? Everyone has lots of time to play with. The current budget takes government through June 30. A shutdown doesn’t start until the authority to spend money ends July 1.
Not that lawmakers don’t show a sense of seriousness at times. In the waning weeks of the session that ended April 24, members of both parties actually began proposing incredibly complicated plans to shift most of the K-12 cost burden now covered by local levies back onto the state, where it belongs.
One Senate Republican plan hikes the state share of property taxes to replace voter-approved levies. This directly addresses a huge problem the Supreme Court is upset about. In doing so, the GOP plan equalizes teacher pay by region, boosts health benefits for K-12 employees and limits the ability of local districts to supplement pay, which now varies widely among districts.
Democrats prefer a capital-gains tax that hits the wealthiest among us rather than homeowners, who could get soaked for $700 million under the GOP plan (despite their stated opposition to taxes). Democrats also are considering a fee on carbon emissions that scientists link to global warming.
Much of the budget rhetoric has been silly. At different times the GOP claimed Democrats were holding up the show by refusing to vote on taxes needed to fill gaps in their $39 billion budget. Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler told us last week that top House budget writer, Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, bought a six-month gym membership — as if that’s proof the Democrats were never serious about getting work done quickly.
By contrast, Schoesler says, the Senate approved budgets for operations, transportation and capital construction. It is true that the House hasn’t acted on a transportation plan.
House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan says Democrats want to first put an extra $500 million into education and related programs helping poor kids and families. That’s a good argument.
At the same time, Democrats should stand and be counted on taxes, even if it’s an election risk, if they believe in a fairer tax system that doesn’t utterly favor the rich. Such a system is what we now have, and Republicans clearly prefer this unfair system. Let them own it.
Democrats have taken silly rhetorical shots, too. They maligned the work ethic of the Senate, which took many three-day weekends since January.
On and on it goes.
Can’t somebody just slap them?
Our hope is that once a new two-year revenue forecast comes in Monday, the GOP can own up to the need to find more money — and to say what it’s willing to accept in taxes, or new “revenue.”
And Democrats can say what they are willing to forgo on the spending side.
All of this is crazy, for sure. We’d recommend mediation, but who, really, would ever take the job?