Budget leaders in the Legislature discuss state of budget, taxes and education

Matthew Zylstra / For The Reflector

Budget leaders in the state Legislature were divided in their priorities for the upcoming legislative session during a question and answer session with reporters at the state Capitol on Thursday, Jan. 5. While the leaders, representing both parties in the state House and Senate, seemed to share many of the same concerns, the leaders were divided along party lines on how to address those issues.

“We are in a strong fiscal place in this state, our economy is strong,” said Sen. Christine Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, who chairs the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Republicans appeared to agree with Rolfes’ optimistic view of the state budget.

“As Sen. Rolfes said, our budget is in good shape right now,” said Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, the leading Republican on the Ways and Means Committee.

Leaders in both parties also agreed inflation is a major issue facing Washington residents.

“We know people are hurting with inflation,” Rolfes said, later asking “where can we help folks who need it the most (with inflation)?”

Wilson added, “I saw 12 eggs the other day, a carton of eggs, for $10.99 … and now we’re looking at a recession coming.”

But the agreements largely appeared to end there. While speaking with reporters, the budget leaders showed clear differences in how the two parties believe the state should approach important issues.

“Tax relief for the people of Washington is long overdue,” said Rep. Drew Stokesbary, R-Auburn, the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee.

Stokesbary argued for cuts in the state sales tax, a proposal his Democratic counterparts rejected.

“I think what we’re trying to identify in the House Democratic Caucus is specific needs of individuals that find themselves left behind marginalized, underrepresented and using expenditures and the budget to target relief to those individuals,” said Rep. Timm Ormsby, D- Spokane, the chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

Ormsby also referred to a general cut in the sales tax rate as being “untargeted” and therefore not acceptable as an option.

“Our goal is to target investments where they’re needed,” Ormsby said.

Stokesbary in turn argued Democrats’ own logic should favor a general tax cut, pointing to Democratic claims the sales tax disproportionately harms the poor.

“If the sales tax is as regressive as the Democrats claim it to be … cutting the sales tax will disproportionately help the poor,” Stokesbary said.

In addition to taxes, the two sides expressed disagreement regarding other budget issues.

One issue both sides discussed was education funding. Republicans repeatedly brought up the issue in relation to claimed learning loss among students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We got to get OSPI on board with doing something (about learning loss),” said Wilson, who listed education as one of her top five priorities for the legislative session.

Stokesbary said “we have sentenced a generation of students to academic stagnation. We can’t undo those awful decisions that were made but we can reduce their consequences.”

Wilson and Stokesbary also mentioned general school funding as an issue.

“I think rural schools get left out (of education funding),” Wilson said. “Right now only 43% of the budget is directed at education. … A few years ago, back in 2017, it was over 50%.”

Wilson specifically mentioned funding for school nurses. She argued funding was based on fractions of a nurse, meaning in rural areas with low student populations there wouldn’t be the same levels of funding to hire nurses as there would be in urban areas.

“When you allocate a 0.1 to a nurse … that’s basically the way that it’s distributed, 0.1 isn’t going to do it for several schools out there in the rural areas,” Wilson said.

Stokesbary mentioned the Washington state Supreme Court’s 2012 McCleary decision, which mandated more funding for schools and legislative changes that were made to comply with the decision.

“You know, I got elected right when the Legislature was wrapping up its work on McCleary and what I have been telling colleagues is that the entire point of McCleary is not to send money to schools for the sake of sending more money to schools. The point is to improve educational outcomes for a number of years,” Stokesbary said. “The Legislature was pretty laser focused on improving the funding that is needed to deliver better outcomes. But now that we have, you know, more or less done that in the eyes of the Supreme Court, we seem to be less focused on obtaining results (and) we are taking a huge step backwards. That was quite regrettable.”

Stokesbary also touched briefly on the issue of funding for higher education.

“We need more funding toward outcomes, not necessarily colleges, per se, or college administrators,” Stokesbary said.

Other areas the budget leaders touched on during their question and answer session with reporters included funding for drug treatment, homelessness, workforce development and law enforcement.

The 2023 legislative session began on Jan 9.