Final Budget Responds to Pressing Needs, But Lacks Bold Vision
While the final 2016 supplemental operating budget makes some important progress on addressing Washington state’s most emergent needs – like the teacher shortage, the homelessness crisis, and wildfires – the deal is nevertheless shortsighted. Until lawmakers craft a budget that invests in all of the resources people and communities across the state need to thrive, we will fail to move the needle on improving our economy and on the issues that matter most to Washingtonians.
The budget deal reached by lawmakers focuses on addressing a set of emergencies that can no longer be ignored. To fund these emergencies, lawmakers rely on shifting resources away from other major priorities and using funds from the Budget Stabilization Account, the state’s rainy day fund that should typically be used during economic downturns (see chart). The final budget is a $191 million net increase from the 2015-2017 enacted budget. Noteworthy changes and exclusions include:
COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT & TRUST
- $190 million to cover the costs of 2015’s wildfires. Resources taken from the rainy day fund will be used to address the unexpected costs of the worst wildfire season in our state’s history.
- No major investments to adequately fund K-12 education per the McCleary ruling. Lawmakers put off the task of adequately funding our public schools until next session, leaving students and schools across the state without the resources they need to obtain and provide a high-quality education.
- $1.2 million to help close the education opportunity gap. Lawmakers took steps to close the opportunity gap in education by implementing several recommendations from the Educational Opportunity Gap Oversight and Accountability Committee, including: reducing discipline for students of color, instituting mandatory cultural competency training for teachers and staff, and requiring better, more detailed racial and ethnic data for students.
- $13 million to improve the availability and quality of family child care centers, but no major investment in the Early Start Act. The additional resources cover a collective bargaining agreement reached in 2015 and will help increase the number of slots and improve the affordability of family child care. However, no significant progress was made on advancing the Early Start Act, which needs additional resources to increase availability and affordability of early learning opportunities.
- $5 million to recruit and retain high-quality teachers, but no salary increase. Lawmakers failed to provide teachers with a pay increase, but a small amount of resources are provided to recruit and retain new teachers and para-educators in response to Washington state's teacher shortage.
HEALTHY PEOPLE & ENVIRONMENT
- Reduced funding to address toxic cleanup. Lawmakers continue to raid the Model Toxics Control Account (MCTA) to balance the general fund. MCTA resources are supposed to be spent on cleaning up more than 5,700 toxic sites across the state, preventing harmful air and water pollution, and funding community participation grants so the public can address a toxic pollution threat. The funding cuts or delays are in response to a dramatic drop in revenue from polluters across the state.
- $41 million in additional resources to treat and support people with mental illness. The additional resources will be used to support Western State Hospital, expand medical staff, and increase community-level services.
- $11 million for programs supporting homeless youth. The investment will create 23 new HOPE beds, which provide shelter, support, and permanency planning for street youth. These resources also include other temporary services for homeless youth, much of which will flow to counties.
- $49 million reduction in state funding for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). By far, one of the most egregious changes to the state budget is the continued “sweeping” of resources out of TANF to balance the state budget. Previous cuts to TANF – the primary program to help families with low incomes to find or keep a job – have kicked people off of the program, and made it harder to get on, resulting in a caseload decline. Lawmakers continue to funnel the resources from this program to balance the budget.
The final budget deal did avoid a revenue-draining tax break for giant media corporations, which was welcome news. And while many of the investments made this session are laudable, the fact that our state budget only allows for investment in issues that have reached the point of emergency should alert lawmakers to the problem underlying these crises – a broken revenue system and a prevailing anti-tax sentiment is preventing us from having the investments we need to allow Washingtonians and our economy to make progress.
Scrambling to deal with emergencies, dipping into rainy day funds, and cutting important programs is just bad business. Crafting a budget that makes real progress for the people and economy of
Washington state requires lawmakers to take bold steps and big thinking to ensure that there is enough revenue to prepare for the long-term needs of our state.