We Need an Ambitious Budget to Help our All People and Communities Thrive

If ever there was a time to invest deeply in our people and basic services, it’s now.

On February 22, Washington legislators unveiled their proposals to amend the current state budget that runs through June 2023. They had plenty of money to potentially spend, since state tax revenues are coming in faster than expected and federal COVID relief funds remain unallocated. Our people and state also have extraordinary needs. The COVID pandemic has affected the health, emotional well-being, and economic security of everyone – but in disparate ways. Over the past two years, economic, racial, and gender inequality has deepened. By some measures, such as the overall unemployment rate and sales tax revenue receipts, we’re well on the way to economic recovery. Nevertheless, Washington ended 2021 with 70,000 fewer jobs than when the pandemic began, many people lack housing and food security, and schooling has been disrupted for all our kids and young adults trying to pursue higher education.

If ever there was a time to invest deeply in our people and basic services, it’s now.

Many analysts and news reports have highlighted the increased total spending reflected in high-level summaries of the budget proposals unveiled by House and Senate Democrats this week. Many specific allocations do go to priority needs which we fully support, including modest increases for child care and pre-school, more school nurses and counselors, college accessibility and affordability, establishing a Paid Family & Leave program reserve fund, and lots more.

But the rate of increase depends on what starting point you choose. We came into this pandemic not yet out of the hole left over from the austerity budgets of the Great Recession a decade ago. A deeper dive shows that over half of the increased spending proposed now is getting transferred out of the operating budget, including $1.5 billion into a “Washington Rescue Plan Transition Account,” and avoiding a gas tax increase by putting $2 billion into the transportation budget.

These proposals leave both state and federal money on the table. Yet K-12 schools actually lost funding, despite the pressing educational and emotional needs of kids who’ve experienced two years of disruption and trauma. Because so many children haven’t returned to school after being sent home early in the pandemic, schools have lost nearly $1 billion in enrollment-based funding. The increases proposed for specific items don’t even fully make up that loss, let alone account for the substantially additional needs kids have right now. Child care, health care, housing, and human services also need more investments.

Keeping some funds in reserve may be a good idea with so much volatility and uncertainty in the world right now. But poorly targeted and somewhat gimmicky tax cuts such as a Labor Day sales tax holiday – when many low wage and essential workers will be working, not out shopping – use up funds that would be better spent where the need is greatest.

The legislature has between now and March 10 to negotiate a final budget and finish up work on a slew of policy bills. We need an ambitious budget to help our all people and communities thrive.

 

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