Wednesday, June 28, 2017
ZERO HOUR: It is certainly true that if one party in a negotiation wants several things and the other party wants only one thing, then the other party that wants only one thing is severely leveraged over the party that wants several—and particularly so when the single thing that’s wanted is to categorically deny the several things wanted by the first party. This is the dynamic that has forced the state Legislature toward a fiscal cliff and government shutdown.
A visibly irritated Governor Jay Inslee called for a third special session last week, after the Legislature ended their second special session with no budget agreement. Inslee had earlier threatened to call no additional session in order to force lawmakers to the negotiating table.
If the Legislature cannot pass a 2017-2019 budget by June 30—this Friday—then certain state offices and facilities will start closing that same day and be totally shut down on July 1. And they’re very close, working in sessions late into the evening, which is perhaps why the governor eased his own pressure on their deliberations by granting them more time.
“Last night we worked in committee until 2am, the previous night the same,” Sen. Kevin Ranker admitted. “Look, I don’t put in those kinds of long, long, late hours unless we’re close, and we’re extremely close. If you see me leaving early, that’s a problem,” the Democrats’ top budget writer laughed. The Orcas Island Democrat predicted an agreement before clock runs out at the end of the week.
The sticking point, as it has been throughout the regular and successive special sessions in Olympia, is the funding of public education as required under the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision.
“For some time, Republicans and Democrats have both agreed that we needed to make a monumental investment in K through 12 education,” Ranker said. “There has, however, been a difference on how we pay for it.”
For the bulk of the regular session, Republicans insisted no new revenues were necessary for a response to McCleary, an investment in public education most budget analysts have pegged at $7 billion. Late in the session, unable to pencil the requirements to fully fund public education through cuts alone, Republicans proposed a massive property tax realignment. Under the Republican plan, the myriad local property tax levies that are currently providing for the operations of schools would ease and be replaced by a statewide levy. But the proposal would hit areas with high property values hard—raising taxes in urban areas and politically blue districts—while having limited (or perhaps even beneficial) effect in areas with low property values—rural areas, and particularly those in the eastern portion of the state, and red districts politically.
Democrats wanted new revenue and new forms of revenue in order to reduce the burden on the state’s heavily subscribed mix of property and sales taxes. Democrats sought a tax on high-end capital gains and balked at the Republican proposal, believing it continued to inflame the state’s regressive tax structure. Politically, the GOP plan is a poison pill that punishes liberal districts of Puget Sound to the political gain of conservatives inland.
“In the past few years, lawmakers in Washington state have passively relied on revenue growth from the shaky economic recovery in order to make sluggish progress toward fully funding schools, per the state Supreme Court’s McCleary mandate,” analysts at Washington State Budget & Policy Center commented. “This approach has been both inadequate—the Legislature is currently being held in contempt for failing to fully fund schools—and irresponsible, since most or all of the revenue growth will vanish when the next recession strikes.”
The leverage here is fully with Republicans, who’ve allowed several years to glide by without a solution to McCleary. And their leverage is particularly ferocious now, with a looming shutdown of government that they might turn to political advantage into the fall.
“Republicans and Democrats are working tirelessly to get it done and make sure we don’t have a shutdown,” Ranker said. “What’s disappointing is there is even a threat of a shutdown. The people of Washington deserve better.”
While neither party wants to plunge over the fiscal cliff, Republican lawmakers have made it clear they’re willing to do so to achieve larger goals.
At this hour, and with many more hours of negotiation to go, it appears likely the Republicans will achieve their plan to realign property tax to fund public education. And (the Gristle predicts) the property tax will be approved on strictly partisan lines, with Republicans having sufficient votes in the Senate to pass the realignment on their own.
The budget makes enormous strides in meeting state requirements under McCleary, but it does so by being bare bones in the funding of other state programs, including those that assist lower incomes, women’s and children’s health, and the environment.
On the last, the state’s land and shoreline protections are just pummeled in this budget. And a general surrender on Hirst, the Supreme Court ruling on rural wells, will almost certainly be painfully extracted from Democrats in this last-minute exchange.
Republican senators have insisted on an agreement on water rights policy before they’ll engage in talks on a capital spending plan. The Republican solution to Hirst essentially nullifies the Supreme Court ruling by reasserting full circle that rural wells are exempt from larger considerations of water quantity. It’s a “fix” that may trigger another furious round of well digging, but not one likely to long satisfy the high court protections of senior water rights.
It’s a discouraging era for Democrats—chided by the left to seek higher values and more noble goals, but insufficient in numbers in their caucus to robustly defend even the values and goals we currently have. A wall cannot be built while the sea rushes in.