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The state's budgeting process is evidently broken

In Our Opinion


After months of intense debates and deadline extensions, Washington state will have a budget for the next biennium. Eventually.

The state’s Revenue and Forecast Council said last week that the state could expect an additional $231 million in tax revenue over the next two years. Economists say better home sales, modest job growth, slowly increasing consumer confidence and growing sales tax receipts account for the added revenue.

With the extra $231 million, lawmakers believe there is a chance to come to an agreement on the state’s $32 billion budget. Gov. Jay Inslee has mentioned a government shutdown could take place if a budget doesn’t come together by the end of June. Should that happen, the state would be unable to pay some of its workers and unable to run some programs.

Although the extra funds should help the budgeting process, keep in mind that it’s only a projected number of what could happen over the next two years. Also, while $231 million sounds like a lot on its own, when considered to be the “make or break” part of a $32 billion (or $32,000 million) budget, it’s a miniscule amount. Essentially, state legislators are rolling the dice with the budget, hoping the sales tax forecast holds up over the next couple of years.

Since the Legislature hasn’t provided a budget, entities like Eastern Washington University can’t start their own for next year. At a recent board of trustees meeting, the university said it would operate on a stopgap budget until one came from Olympia, estimating the same level of funding it received last year. Other departments, however, will likely see their budgets reduced from last year and they’re sitting on pins and needles until word comes from the Legislature. Even the Senate and House budget proposals can’t agree on a funding level for many key departments. It’s all based on sales tax revenue.

Sales tax fluctuates, however, and is rarely a consistent model. It causes a big headache for just about any public organization dealing with the state. That said, this seems like a good time for the state to consider an alternative form of tax collection: a flat income tax.

The biggest improvement a simple income tax could bring is consistency. Sure, it wouldn’t close all of the loopholes, but having a consistent measurement that provides a good baseline for the state’s tax revenue forecast would be invaluable.

There are arguments both in favor and against replacing the state’s sales tax with an income tax, but in the end, it’s less complicated and may save people more money in the long run.

The bottom line is that budgeting in our state is broken, and desperately needs help. Lawmakers seem to run into this problem every biennium despite being aware that a deadline is near. Instead of receiving the budget’s preliminary outlook in February to March, the process either needs to be streamlined or the timeline bumped up. After all, why go into a budgeting session when you don’t have any information on-hand?

A house cannot be built without its foundation.

On the off chance that the Legislature has somehow managed to agree on a budget between writing this editorial and the newspaper’s publishing, forget everything written above. The budgeting system is, of course, without fault.

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