Because the Democrats control the state’s House, Senate and the Governor’s Office, reaching agreement on the 2021-2023 budget should be relatively easy.
It helps that each side agrees on many policy perspectives, and the political messaging from each budget reflects similar priorities. The final budget will set the framework for the next legislative session. This is the long session where most of the hard work takes place. Next year is the short session when legislators will want to get out of Olympia and home to campaign.
Gov. Jay Inslee presented his budget of $57.6 billion that contained much of the general fund for managing the day to day tasks of state government, such as education (K-12 and college), transportation, public health and social welfare support, climate change and ensuring that those hit the hardest by the pandemic received the help they need with rent, food and child care.
Inslee also included a capital gains tax from those who are on the opposite end of the economic spectrum from those in need of help. Not surprisingly, the tax has proved controversial. But like the budget, it will also pass.
High-profile community issues that were major concerns to the public in last year’s elections also moved the Legislature to consider other priorities such as equity and inclusion in social justice and police behavior. The end of session totals will show significant movement in laws passed in these categories.
The pandemic highlighted the need for a fresh look at priorities such as affordable housing, rental assistance, relief for landlords and small businesses. Many employees’ next highest cost after their mortgage is child care, which is why Inslee highlighted that need.
The Senate budget at $59.2 billion came out as the new revenue numbers showed the state in better shape than expected, not including $7 billion from the federal government in COVID-19 relief programs. The Senate version also includes more access to broadband and $125 million in financial assistance for state forest lands to help with firefighting, which is also supported by the House and governor.
Other areas of agreement appear to be $191 million for the University of Washington behavioral health teaching hospital, $495 million in rental assistance, and $500 million to reduce unemployment insurance taxes. The Senate capital budget also took into account the need to ensure different parts of the state received assistance, including $500 million to expand access to the internet across the state. The Senate version included $205 million for the state housing trust fund, which could allow some communities to purchase hotels as possible shelters, while the House version had $175 million for that fund.
The House budget came in at $58 billion. The House includes $1 billion for rental assistance that can be used to reduce owed rent for landlords. The House has $600 million earmarked to offset unemployment insurance tax. Also included is $340 million for an immigrant relief fund, $415 million to temporally increase rates for long-term care providers for people with developmental disabilities, and $204 million to temporarily expand eligibility for the paid family medical leave program.
Community colleges are frequently in need of capital projects, and since they are spread out over the entire state, watch for them as negotiating material because Republican votes will be needed to bond some capital projects. The same can be said for transportation projects, which are crumbling faster than the state can keep up. There is also $11.1 million to construct a new Nisqually State Park near Eatonville. It will be easier for the budget negotiators from the Senate and House to reach agreement with Gov. Inslee as the priorities are nearly identical, with only the actual dollars needed to reach final agreement.
If the Democrats lose either House and have to include Republicans in budget negotiations for the 2023-2025 budget, it won’t be nearly as much fun, which is why Republicans would like to win both Houses and the Governor’s Office.
However, there are always politics by both sides as they add up the scorecard for 2022 elections and work on their political messaging. Democrats want to retain the power to set the budget and give legislators budget approval for projects in their home districts. That helps at election time. Also, the Democratic emphasis on covering the whole state with budget allocations is intended to demonstrate they are not just a King County or I-5 political party.
The most noticeable differences between the parties are on police issues and taxes. Republicans tend to be police supporters, but with few questions asked. Democrats are more inclined to see areas where police need to improve their policies, particularly with minorities and the “use of force,” and want to pass laws that hold police accountable.
The capital gains tax this year to fund child care is another example of how the parties disagree. The tax will be 7% of assets above $250,000 with several exceptions. The Association of Washington Business (AWB) took out full page ads in the Tacoma newspaper urging the public to contact their legislators to oppose the capital gains tax.
But many small businesses in suburban jurisdictions face the same challenges of keeping their businesses profitable as families try to pay their bills in a pandemic. Some small businesses may feel like AWB is looking out for big businesses.
Republicans are opposed to any new taxes and tend to have more people of wealth in their party. Democrats tend to have more members at the other end of the economic scale trying to raise a family with limited resources. That is why the Democrats put the tax on the wealthy. That is an overly simplistic explanation of the difference in the two parties, but it helps explain why Olympia works the way it does. Once the budget negotiations are finished, the April 25, end of the session schedule will come pretty quickly. It is then that the political messaging will be really noticeable.
Democrats will emphasize the problems they solved and note they were able to require rich people to pay their fair share. Republicans will continue to argue that the capital gains tax is unconstitutional because it is a tax on income. AWB’s strategy may be to try and run an initiative with the fall elections to elect more Republicans to local offices and build a bench for legislative elections in 2022.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact email@example.com.