The debate over the proper size and scope of state government is, for all practical purposes, endless. When partisan control of the legislature is split, as it is now, that debate takes on a renewed urgency. Yet every two years legislators forge a go-home compromise, sometimes after a special session or two. Then they adjourn, and the debate begins anew during the next session.
Leaders in the Republican-led state Senate promised a contrast with the House’s budget, and they’ve delivered it. The Senate budget does not include new taxes and makes significant progress on education funding, adding $1.3 billion dollars that is directly tied to the McCleary decision.
$3 billion more is enough
The biggest difference between the House’s approach to the budget and the Senate’s is Senate budget leader Andy Hill’s belief that rising state tax revenues are sufficient to fund what the state needs to fund. Without any new taxes, tax revenues are expected to rise by $3 billion over the next two years.
Hill thinks that’s enough. Legislative Democrats want government to grow by more than that. They’ve proposed a tax on capital gains income, higher B&O taxes for service businesses, and sales taxes on bottled water, among others.
One of the biggest differences between the two budget proposals is the amount in each for employee pay raises. The Senate budget gives state workers a $1,000 raise in each of the next two years. The House funds the full contracts, with percentage raises, state employee unions negotiated with Gov. Inslee last year. The Senate plan will actually give larger raises to 25,000 lower-paid state workers than the union-negotiated contracts, Hill figures.
Major adds to education, reductions in tuition
The Senate budget invests significantly in education. In addition to the $1.3 billion to help the state meet its McCleary obligation, Hill included $95 million in new early learning and pre-school funding. That will help kids from low-income families catch up and enter kindergarten ready to learn. The Senate budget also funds all-day kindergarten statewide by the 2016-17 school year and builds new classrooms.
Our state universities and community colleges, which are so critical to our economy, also fare well under the Senate budget. With $300 million in new funding, Senate Republicans are again demonstrating that they are higher ed’s strongest advocates in the legislature. That boost will help bring down university tuition by 25% over the next two years.
A choice to put education first, a choice to live within our means
Budgeting is about making choices. All of us live with financial constraints and make choices about how we spend our dollars. That reality is true for Olympia also, but too often the temptation is to say “yes” to too many proposals, as worthy as they may be.
Sen. Hill’s budget flows from one important choice: to prioritize education above other spending. By a more than 3:1 margin, the Senate budget directs new state revenue to education. That’s the right choice.