Legislature’s lead budget writers offer clues about what’s next for state spending

The Washington State Capitol building. (Courtesy of Bill Lucia / Washington State Standard)

Heading into her first session as the chair of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, state Sen. June Robinson on Thursday indicated she would push back on legislation that creates significant new spending, even if the proposals come from her fellow Democrats.

“I know my members have a lot of additional ideas that they would like to see funded,” she said as she discussed the outlook for the session during a panel with other budget committee leaders. “I just don’t think we’re going to be able to do a lot of additional, new initiatives.”

Robinson, of Everett, suggested that while state revenue is solid, lawmakers should tend to current financial obligations before creating new ones.

The big picture

Washington lawmakers will convene Monday for 60 days. During that time, they will craft a supplemental budget, making adjustments to the state’s current two-year spending plan.

The state’s balance sheet is in relatively good shape. Revenue is up roughly $1.2 billion since lawmakers adopted the budget in April, with projected tax collections for the budget, which runs through June 30, 2025, approaching $66.9 billion, according to a November revenue forecast.

Not included in those figures is money raised from the auction of carbon allowances under the state’s cap-and-trade program, which has so far generated close to $1.8 billion.

There is, however, mounting pressure due to rising costs for transportation projects, including the court-ordered replacement of road culverts that block fish and pricey upgrades to ferries.

These expenses come atop heavy spending in recent years to address problems like homelessness and the state’s affordable housing shortfall and its lack of mental health beds.

Meanwhile, Republican-backed ballot measures threaten to overturn the cap-and-trade program and a new tax on capital gains. The capital gains tax is also facing a challenge at the U.S. Supreme Court. The court could decide in the coming days whether to hear the case.

The capital gains tax in its first year raised nearly $900 million, money that will go toward early learning and child care programs, and to school construction and renovation projects.

Cap-and-trade revenue is bound for programs to cut air pollution, prepare the state to better withstand climate change, and expand the use of clean energy technology.

If either of those income streams are cut off, it would leave sizable holes in the state’s budget that lawmakers would have to grapple with in future years.

“Budgeting is always a risk assessment,” said Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, adding that ballot measures like those targeting cap-and-trade and the capital gains tax are “yet another risk that will have to be factored in.”

Ormsby ticked off a list of familiar budget priorities for his caucus: housing, child care, and behavioral health programs, which include mental health and addiction services.

Robinson emphasized, as she has previously, that behavioral health is a priority issue for her. The state already has plans to spend nearly $1.3 billion on expanding the availability of mental health beds, with most of the money going to upgrades at Western State Hospital.

Washington is also under a court-monitored settlement agreement that calls for it to reduce the amount of time people in jail are waiting to get mental health treatment and evaluations before they can be deemed competent to stand trial.

Robinson said she’d like to see more spending focused on getting people help before they end up in psychiatric hospitals. “Making sure people get services in their communities, in their homes, when they still have a support network around them,” she said.

The Republican view

Rep. Chris Corry, R-Yakima and the ranking member on the House Appropriations Committee, said he would like to see tax relief for state residents, but acknowledged this was unlikely. He also raised concerns about how much the state is spending.

“It’s good that revenues are going up,” he said. “I worry about our ability to continue budgeting with this idea that we’re going to keep growing forever.”

“The state has plenty of money,” Corry added. “We have a lot of challenges and the answer isn’t always just take more money from people and I’ll be pushing back on that in any way I can.”

Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, who is the top Republican on Senate Ways and Means, suggested that lawmakers should consider possible effects the ballot initiatives could have on the budget if voters approve the measures, and she registered her opposition to new taxes and higher spending.

Wilson said she would only agree to more spending in response to an emergency, or if it was for something that couldn’t easily be pushed off until next year. “Our budget is fine,” she said.

by Bill Lucia, Washington State Standard

Washington State Standard is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Washington State Standard maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Bill Lucia for questions: info@washingtonstatestandard.com. Follow Washington State Standard on Facebook and Twitter.

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