Logic prevails: Legislators go with a levy swap

After all that – the years of court hearings, legislative debates, campaign promises and contempt fines – the Legislature’s main McCleary solution is (drumroll please): A levy swap.

Hey, that sounds familiar.

Not that the ultimate budget package had anything to do with the 2012 campaign. Legislators chose the property tax swap because there is a clear logic to it and because it is required by the Supreme Court’s McCleary decision. It helps solve McCleary while being minimally disruptive and relatively fair (and yes, I’m one of those homeowners who will be paying more in property taxes).

It is worth nothing, of course, that after so loudly and forcefully denouncing a property tax swap in 2012, Gov. Jay Inslee quietly acquiesced to it this week. It was the main attack used against me in that campaign, but with his signature this week, Inslee essentially said, “Well, never mind.”

The fingerprints of Inslee’s December budget proposal are scarcely to be found in the final document. A governor’s budget proposal is supposed to be the starting point for legislators. The starting point for Inslee’s budget was capitol recycling bins.

Republicans did well
In a split legislature, neither side got everything it wanted. That’s as it should be. Nobody got “rolled,” as Danny Westneat put it, but it’s true that Senate Republicans did very well.

The GOP had some negotiating advantages. For one thing, several Democrats admitted they couldn’t stomach a partial government shutdown. The Republicans also had a structural advantage, in that their goals required fewer extensive law changes. That allowed for a stronger negotiation stance. The Democrats’ scant 50-48 majority in the House played a role as well.

It was never clear what tax hikes actually had majority support in the House. House Democrats have never brought a carbon tax to the floor for a vote, even though it is Gov. Inslee’s fondest legislative wish. They demurred on voting for their own capital gains income tax unless Senate Republicans pre-emptively approved it.

The “off-the-record” excuse was that they didn’t want to take a tax vote if the proposal wasn’t going to go anywhere. But shouldn’t they have believed, since it was a “progressive” tax that would apply only to wealthy households (at first), that their idea would be broadly popular? Clearly they weren’t so confident.

They probably won’t take PR advice from me, but it looks better to stand behind your own ideas.

And now?
The plaintiffs’ lawyer in the McCleary case has already declared the new K-12 funding levels inadequate. That’s no surprise, and it is true that no one really knows how the court will react. That viewpoint is unlikely to prevail, however – not least because the court has already been pushing the boundaries of what it can force the other branches to do.

Schools funding has increased significantly. The new budget package addresses all three legs of the McCleary stool: K-12 funding is ample, it’s stable, and it’s equitable.

In the end, this is a pretty decent budget. It’s good for students, fair to school districts, and doesn’t include (like the teachers union wanted) high local school levies in addition to new state property taxes. All in all, it’s a win.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.