Gov. Jay Inslee did something unusual Tuesday — unveiled a budget proposal that calls for no spending cuts or tax increases.
It’s the first time that’s happened in six years. Multibillion-dollar shortfalls, and corresponding fights over taxes and spending cuts, had seemingly become the norm after the Great Recession hit in 2008.
However, any respite will be short-lived, Inslee said.
“I’m releasing a hold-steady budget in a get-ready year,” Inslee said. “It is a get-ready budget because we must recognize this is a lull.”
A year from now, he said, the state will once again face large unpaid bills, namely in the form of a state Supreme Court mandate that calls for the Legislature to invest billions of dollars in its education system over the next several years. Inslee indicated he’ll try to eliminate tax breaks to provide more revenue.
Republicans, on the other hand, say economic growth will provide enough money to meet the state’s needs and no new tax dollars are necessary.
But that’s a battle for later, the governor said. The supplemental budget he rolled out Tuesday covers the gap between now and the end of the current $33.6 billion, two-year budget approved last session.
The governor’s plan proposes a roughly $250 million boost in spending. Most of that would go for “mandatory” costs such as increased enrollment in public schools, more inmates in prisons and the costs of fighting wildfires over the past summer.
Included in that proposed spending are new programs, including $3 million for teacher mentoring, $7 million to provide more space for increased numbers of both male and female prison inmates and $13 million for information-technology upgrades.
The House and Senate will come out with their own budget proposals next legislative session, and then all three sides will craft a compromise.
At his news conference Tuesday, the governor spent as much time talking about the 2015 legislative session as he did about the one that starts Jan. 13.
Inslee said he wants once again to go after eliminating certain tax breaks to generate more revenue.
By many estimates, the state needs to pump more than $1 billion into K-12 education when the Legislature writes a new two-year budget in 2015, to help meet the court mandate.
There’s also growing pressure for the Legislature to provide pay increases for teachers and state workers, who haven’t received state-funded cost-of-living increases since 2008.
“Teachers have not gotten their voter-mandated cost-of-living adjustments since 2008. That situation is untenable and I fully intend to rectify it … in the next biennial budget,” Inslee said. “State employees have also gone without cost-of-living increases since 2008. That is just too long to wait.”
The Washington Education Association (WEA), the state’s largest teachers union, argues educators shouldn’t have to wait until 2015 for the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA).
“With the economy improving, there is no reason teachers and other educators should face a sixth year without a state-funded COLA. It isn’t fair,” WEA President Kim Mead said in a statement.
Inslee said his hands are tied for now when it comes to pay increases or finding more money for education.
“It is simply impossible in the current situation in the House and Senate to do that. I’m a realist and can count votes,” Inslee said. “Next biennium we will have to face the music.”
A Republican-led majority took control of the Senate earlier this year when Democratic Sens. Rodney Tom, of Medina, and Tim Sheldon, of Potlatch, crossed party lines to give the GOP control.
The majority caucus has maintained that economic growth would provide enough money to meet the state’s obligations and that no additional tax revenue is needed.
“Every year that’s what I hear in January,” Senate Ways and Means Chairman Andy Hill said of the Democrats’ call for additional tax revenue. “It is a perennial cry.
“It’s lazy and not the right way to go about it,” said Hill, R-Redmond.
Inslee, conversely, said the state has an “old jalopy” of a tax system that no longer keeps pace with the state’s needs, including growing population and enrollment in schools.
“I don’t understand why that’s hard to understand,” Inslee said. “You might want to ask … with what eraser do they intend to erase all these economic certainties that are simple math, not ideology.”