As time runs out on our overtime session in Olympia, I think it’s a good moment to ask an important question. What on earth is keeping us here?
Last week should have settled things. State economists told us we can count on another $400 million without raising taxes a dime. Now we can say for sure we have more than enough money to do everything we need to do, reach a budget agreement and move on to the last few items on our plate.
There’s just one thing standing in the way of a deal. The idea that we need to raise taxes to fund education.
Compared to most years we are absolutely awash in money. With this latest forecast, we now have $3.2 billion more in tax revenue than we did the last time we wrote a budget. That’s a 9.2 percent increase! Pretty darn good by anyone’s standards. We got it without a tax hike, and this $3.2 billion figure doesn’t include things like money that comes in before June 30. In fact we’ve had $1.1 billion in good news since the year began, nearly half of it in the last month. We can find even more cash to meet critical needs, by reprioritizing within the budget. We can do it responsibly, because our four-year balanced-budget law ensures our spending will be sustainable.
So if we don’t actually need the money, why in the world are we arguing about a tax increase? I think it has to do with a notion that has taken hold of a certain wing of the Democratic Party – that tax increases are a social good. Some say we should redo our tax system so that it captures a greater share of personal income, and so that tax revenue rises even faster from year to year than it already does. This argument is always presented as a matter of “fairness.” If we had this money, of course we would spend it wisely – we’d still make tough choices, none of it would disappear into the black hole of state government bureaucracy, and surely it wouldn’t be used to reward special interest groups that favor a particular political party.
You can sense my skepticism. The thing is, these special interests are more influential than ever. They were frustrated during the recession, when no sensible lawmaker was willing to raise taxes on a struggling populace. Now that times are a little better, we see a burst of creativity when it comes to new tax proposals – things like cap and trade, capital-gains income taxes and so on.
So if we don’t need the money – if we can balance the budget without it – all we really have is a dubious philosophical argument. Even Democrats seem skittish about the idea. In March and April, when Democratic Party leaders in the state House were calling for the biggest tax increase in state history, Democratic members weren’t willing to vote for it. I think this news about the revenue forecast will make this position even harder to maintain. Already we see Democratic leaders and Gov. Inslee backing away from their previous tax proposals. They’re saying they didn’t need to propose such a large tax increase to begin with. That’s a start.
It is time to tell the taxpayers of this state we recognize $3.2 billion of increased revenue is enough. The sooner we all reach this moment of clarity, the sooner we can wrap up the people’s business and go home.
Sen. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, is vice chair of the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus.