Viewpoint: Lessons learned from a long, tough legislative session

Puget Sound Business Journal

By Senator Joe Fain

After a long and controversial session, the Legislature learned two valuable lessons in the passage of its 2013 budget: Establish priorities and keep your word.

The new state operating budget prioritizes investing in the future, protecting the most vulnerable citizens and living within our means. State revenue is expected to grow by more than $2 billion during the next two-year budget cycle. Encouraged by this growth, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle worked to make sure those dollars would go where they are needed most. After months of debate, the budget was approved with more bipartisan support than any spending plan in recent history.

The 2013-15 budget directs $15.2 billion into public education, including $1 billion for direct enhancements to basic education. But simply providing funding for K-12 without addressing the state’s entire education system does not fully prepare students for college and future careers. The Majority Coalition responded by increasing access to the state’s primary early-learning program and ensured that college tuition rates will not rise during the upcoming academic year for the first time since 1986. Combined with a 12 percent funding increase for Washington’s higher education institutions, flat tuition will make college more affordable for thousands of middle-class students and families who have been hurt most by years of double-digit tuition hikes.

This year’s budget included a $17 million increase to expand enrollment for computer science and engineering degrees. Washington businesses have repeatedly warned legislators that skilled positions in their companies are going unfilled or to out-of-state workers. By increasing access to these high-demand programs, we will provide individuals with the skills employers need and ensure that Washington students are able to compete for these high wage jobs.

Legislators also enhanced services for those most in need in our communities. Budget writers prioritized programs that help individuals with disabilities and mental illnesses, as well as low-income children and families. Highlighting this commitment was the restoration of $9.4 million to our state’s food assistance program, which helps low-income immigrant families buy groceries.

One of the most contentious debates this year was over a proposal from the House of Representatives and the governor’s office to permanently extend a 20 percent increase of the business and occupation tax on thousands of businesses across the state. That surcharge had severely impacted struggling businesses since its passage in 2010 and was set to expire this year. The majority in the Senate stood firm with the help of several Senate Democrats and a coalition of affected organizations against the continuation of this temporary tax.

Forcing these taxes to expire as intended was neither “anti-tax” nor “anti-government.” Many who supported the expiration of these taxes also work to support local school and emergency service levies and advocate for additional public investment in transportation infrastructure.

There may be a need for new state revenues at some point in the future, but this was not the time. The public continues to grow more distrustful of government and their elected representatives, primarily because of failed promises. This is evidenced by the repeated passage of citizen ballot initiatives that prevent the Legislature from raising taxes and constrain its ability to spend. We need to regain the public’s trust before asking them to pay more.

The final 2013 budget contains many positive outcomes, but it is only a good first step. While there is never a “perfect” spending plan, I am confident that the prioritization of education, budget sustainability and protection of the safety net will instill public confidence in state government’s ability to continue to act responsibly in the future.

JOE FAIN, a Republican state senator, represents the 47th Legislative District in South King County and serves as the Majority Floor Leader in the Senate.