The state legislature swiftly approved the Senate’s proposed 2020 supplemental operating budget just days after both it and the House version were released. SB 6168 cleared the Senate in a 33-16 vote on Feb. 27, then passed the House on Feb. 28 in a 55-39 vote.
Aided by unanticipated state revenue, the budget increases spending by more than $1 billion without additional taxes. However, Republican lawmakers in both chambers unsuccessfully pushed for tax cuts prior to SB 6168’s passage.
Sen. John Braun (R-20) told colleagues on the Senate floor that the budget “does have a few good things,” citing additional investments in special education within rural school districts. However, while he voted for the legislation he added “this is not the budget we would put out here if we were in charge, given what we hear from the people of the state of Washington.”
The additional spending from the general fund raises the two-year total from $52.5 billion to $54 billion. The latest operating budget represents more than $15 billion in increased spending in just four years from the $38.2 billion 2015-2017 operating budget that included $234 million from the 2016 supplemental.
Last year alone spending from the general fund increased in the 2019-21 budget by $7.7 billion compared to the prior biennium – funded in large part by a variety of new taxes. The budget would end the 2021-23 biennium with roughly $2.8 billion in the budget stabilization account, a.k.a. the “rainy day fund,” which has been preemptively raided in recent sessions.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Christine Rolfes (D-23) said on the Senate floor that the supplemental budget represents the state’s ongoing “fiscal sustainability” reflected by a bond rating upgrade last year by Moody’s Investor Service from AA1 to AAA.
“This budget continues these practices and leaves us with healthy reserves that will enable our state to respond nimbly in times of fiscal uncertainty,” she said. “This supplemental budget isn’t just building on the strong foundation we’ve all created. It’s making significant new investments and resolving the challenges that we can see coming ahead.”
However, some state lawmakers sought to redirect current or future surplus revenue toward tax relief. An amendment proposed by Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28) but not adopted by the Senate would have had any new increases in revenue between now and September cover a property tax reduction.
“We are favored with a hot economy and….one of the great benefits has been the unprecedented amount of tax revenue that has been generated,” he said. “We are never at a better time than we have in my lifetime and certainly since I’ve been here in Olympia to provide some meaningful tax relief to our constituents.”
Opposed was Majority Leader Andy Billig (D-3). “Tax cuts are also something that are worth talking about, but at this time where we have so much need we should make these important investments.”
Washington Policy Center Government Reform Director Jason Mercier tweeted: “Is there any revenue growth that #waleg believes is big enough to provide tax relief?”
In the House, Rep. Drew Stokesbary (R-31) sponsored an amendment that would have used the $1.14 billion in surplus revenue over the past year to provide for several tax cuts and fund the 2008 Working Families Tax Credit. Rep. Jim Walsh (R-19) proposed a similar amendment.
In a statement following the House vote, Stokesbary wrote that “if the majority cannot find the will to provide tax cuts (now) for working families…then it seems clear they will never provide tax cuts.”
One amendment sponsored by House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan (D-47) and adopted into the budget notes that the bill does not assume revenue as a result of HB 2945, which would curtail certain aerospace tax incentives; that bill is scheduled for executive action in the Ways and Means Committee on March 2.
Changes made in the House-approved operating budget will need to be reconciled with the Senate version before it can be sent to Governor Jay Inslee for signing.