It took two and a half special sessions, compromise on both sides of the aisle, and an agreement between dueling ideological camps for the Washington State legislature to finally pass a budget. According to virtually every newspaper the budget deal is historic. It increases education funding by $1.3 billion, funds much needed transportation projects on the West Coast and for the first time in a decade brings down college tuition costs. But, Senate Democrats have all but undone such impressive work.
To understand how and why we must look to 2014. In 2014, even as Washington State Republicans took control of the State Senate for the first time since 2004, I-1351 was passed by 50.96% of the voters. I-1351 was a Washington Education Association sponsored measure intended to lower class sizes and spend a $1 to do so. It had one major flaw. It had no funding source. Some estimates have put its ultimate cost at $3.7 billion over five years. Adding to the pure politicalness of the move was the fact in 2012 the WA State Supreme Court had told the state it had to spend over $2 billion to fix education disparities across the state. The state was now on the hook for spending over $3 billion in education in the short-term. Such an occurrence was both politically and economically unfeasible. Despite a high sales tax and property tax the state has benefited from no income tax. Fixing a $3 billion budget hole in one session would have required a new income tax (of high proportions).
Following the 2014 elections the GOP and Independent Democratic Caucus (formed in 2013 to create a conservative majority in the upper chamber) announced they would not support tax increases. WA State budgets biannually meaning they really needed to make strides in one short session and make progress they did. Despite the absence of the sitting Governor being involved, Senate Republicans, House Republicans and House Democrats began to coalesce around a plan to start to address the state’s education woes. Such a plan included closing several tax loopholes, a GOP concession, and Democrats agreeing to shelve I-1351 for two years. Along with other aspects of the deal it was the strongest budget passed in recent memory.
The plan was for the legislature to vote to pass the budget and have the Governor sign it into law. This has already occurred. But I-1351 needed to be deferred and this could only occur if 2/3rds of the legislature voted to do so. Senate Democrats had agreed to such a deal in return for the concessions they extracted from Republicans. But, after House Democrats and Republicans voted by 72-26 to defer I-1351 Senate Democrats reneged on their word and broke the agreement. Only six Democrats and 25 Republicans voted to defer and the Senate failed to form a 2/3rds majority.
Such a political play has been slammed by virtually every major newspaper (see here, here, here and here). Worse, the political move blows a $1 billion hole in the state budget which is Constitutionally required to be balanced. The latest special session of the legislature lasts until the end of the month but lawmakers in both chambers do not expect much progress on the issue before then.
Senate Republicans and House Democrats feel burned by the WEA and Senate Democrats. Despite everything Senate Democrats gained from the deal they felt the need to play politics and damage their state in the process. But Senate Democrats are not the only players in this drama that deserve the blame. The biggest honor goes to the WEA and their sponsoring of I-1351. The WEA knew full well the state did not have $3 billion around on top of funding for other much needed projects. They also knew not attaching a funding source to I-1351 put lawmakers in a pinch. Finally, they had to know their lobbying of Senate Democrats might work but would hose their state. None of this seems to matter.
Hopefully, the voters of WA State, the Governor, Senate Republicans and House Democrats can pressure Senate Democrats to back down and stop sucking up to the WEA. If they fail WA State will suffer from higher taxes and ruin what has attracted many to move to the state.