At some point, a legislative body stuck in a budget standoff needs to cut a deal and go home — even if some pieces of the compromise are terrible.
Compromise is even more the order of the day when Republicans and Democrats hold nearly equal numbers of seats — 73 or 74. Who has the most in the Washington Legislature is a question because Sen. Tim Sheldon claims he is a Democrat but reliably votes with the GOP.
The supplemental budget that finally passed wasn’t anything to write home about. Lawmakers avoided new taxes but ditched an initiative to raise starting pay for K-12 teachers.
The budget does address several ongoing state emergencies. It spends $190 million for firefighting costs that erupted with last year’s disastrous, record-setting wildfire season and adds funds for the next one; it does that by taking money appropriately from emergency reserves. The budget also puts about $40 million more into mental health services, including Western State Hospital, and about $13 million for the homeless, particularly youths.
The state’s shoddy handling of mentally ill offenders is in the hands of federal judges who want to see quicker evaluations of people in custody and an end to keeping mentally ill suspects in poorly equipped hospitals or jails.
On public schools, the budget has a modest $7 million for recruitment and retention of public school employees. Lawmakers jettisoned a costlier package sought by Gov. Jay Inslee that would have required the repeal of a few tax exemptions.
In the end, the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House avoided making a major error on tax policy.
Most national television networks have failed to pay business-and-occupation taxes on ad content provided to regional stations. Those transactions became taxable when a 2010 state law extended the B&O taxes to out-of-state businesses with significant financial connections but no physical presence in Washington.
In a bid to avoid lawsuits, a GOP proposal sought to cut by at least half the value of ad activity that would be subject to taxation. Fortunately lawmakers rejected that and instead agreed that the Department of Revenue can offer tax amnesty to firms that owe royalties. Those paying back taxes by October can avoid penalties but still must pay interest on the owed taxes. This raises up to $46 million.
One clearly bad thing in the budget is a transfer of $10 million from the state auditor’s performance audit program, which already lost $12.5 million last year. Jan Jutte, deputy state auditor, has asked Inslee to veto that transfer, which she says will cripple local government audits aimed at safeguarding cybersecurity.
Jutte says the budget move wasn’t an ordinary cut that can be easily vetoed. Instead it was a transfer to the Department of Revenue, which might make it veto-proof. We hope Inslee can find a way to preserve the funding.
In the end, there was little point in keeping lawmakers around to argue further. They passed many policy bills, including rescuing funding for charter schools. But few realistically expected to do much except score political points and set the stage in 2017 to — finally — fully fund K-12 schools.
Republicans were often focused on charter schools and serious mistakes made by Inslee’s prison administration. Democrats worked to assure K-12 teachers that they tried to raise educators’ pay.
Now lawmakers can catch their breath, then start fundraising for re-election campaigns.