The script being played out in Olympia this month is as depressingly familiar as an action movie franchise with one sequel too many.
The Legislature has closed a 105-day session with a whimper, failing again to deliver a budget on time. The failure is magnified by the stakes. This session was arguably the most important policy and budget discussion of our state history as lawmakers no longer had any excuses to reform the state education financing system.
It has been the same script for the past three budget-writing sessions — one overtime session after another. Now, if history is a guide, the Republican-led Senate and Democrat-led House will stare across the negotiating table until the eve of a government shutdown in June. Currently, they’re not even engaged in meaningful budget negotiations — because Republicans won’t come to the table until the Democrats vote on the new taxes that fund their budget.
The public is tired of this. The Washington Supreme Court has held the state in contempt for an astonishing 21 months for failing to fully fund basic education in its McCleary case.
The state needs leadership and courage at this historic moment. Negotiate now, and end the political charades.
Each party bears blame in different ways. House Democrats, as usual, started budget negotiations with a smorgasbord of new taxes which appeal to their supporters. But they have not been willing to put their votes where their mouths are and approve the $3 billion in tax increases which underpin their two-year budget and McCleary-mandated education financing plan.
Stunningly, they ignored the Supreme Court’s primary demand — ending the decades-long pattern of foisting state funding duties onto local school levies, which vary widely between wealthy and poor districts.
That’s a failure of leadership. Democrats should vote on a realistic tax package.
Republicans, on the other hand, tell their voters they’ll live within the state’s means and hold the line on higher taxes. Yet the GOP’s own flawed budget shows the need to raise taxes to fully fund education, because their no-new-taxes budget makes unjustified cuts to the human services safety net and early education. They need to get real about revenue.
The GOP plan to resolve the McCleary case would dramatically raise property taxes on middle class homeowners in Puget Sound cities while giving rural districts — not coincidentally represented by Republicans — property tax cuts. It also requires the plan to be put to a public vote, delaying final resolution of the McCleary case. That’s cynical political strategy, not statesmanship.
Gov. Jay Inslee should be a constructive moderator in this fray. But he risks being counterproductive by engaging in the partisan bomb-throwing endemic in Washington, D.C. — blaming Republicans.
On Friday, the political theater became absurd as the GOP Senate worked to force a meaningless vote on the Democrats’ tax plan. It was a dud, although it threw fuel on the partisan fire. The parties are no closer to the negotiating table.
Meanwhile, Washington badly needs help. More than a million school kids are waiting for the state to fully fund education. Students who were in kindergarten at the beginning of the McCleary case are now in 9th grade. On average, their absentee rates are among the highest in the nation, and their teachers face the potential of layoff notices in May because of the delayed state budget.
Elsewhere, patient care at the state’s biggest psychiatric hospital has been so bad the hospital is at risk of federal defunding. Foster kids sleep in hotels instead of homes. The state has one of the highest property crime rates in the nation.
Instead of addressing these glaring, embarrassing problems, lawmakers hold news conferences to point fingers.
We’ve seen this B-movie script before. End the theater. Compromise. Get to the negotiating table. Washington’s students are waiting.