Olympia waits to hear its financial fate

A major financial report will give lawmakers a reality check. And it could open the door for serious budget talks.
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A major financial report will give lawmakers a reality check. And it could open the door for serious budget talks.

If you rub two dimes together hard enough, will you get an extra nickel out?

A major financial report due out Wednesday will be the center of attention in Olympia this week, providing a long-awaited budget reference point and pushing airy budget talks toward hard numbers.

While the numbers-heavy report typically contains a range of economic measures, the main attraction is one figure: revenue, or how much money the state is set to make in the coming two-year budget cycle. Released in the middle of the process of making the state's budget every two years, the March report from the nonpartisan state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council instantly forms a bedrock that any big plans have to be built on.

The report comes after months of talk that has generally luxuriated in the lack of such concrete figures. From Gov. Jay Inslee's repetition of his no-new-taxes campaign promise to similar Republican themes of paying for services by rearranging them, the idea that it's too early to talk about specifics — and that the state can meet major funding shortfalls without major cuts or new taxes — has been a favorite refrain around Olympia.

All that won't end immediately Wednesday, but the forecast will give budget discussions a dose of reality. And the underlying reality is grim: Along with major needs in transportation (which the governor has proposed funding via a gas tax that's not a tax), the Legislature has been ordered by the state Supreme Court to significantly increase funding to elementary and secondary education.

Pretty quickly, though, the response from both parties to the hard figures in the report will be specifics of their own. Both the a Senate budget written by Republicans, who control budget writing there, and a House budget from the majority Democrats will be released by early next month. In fact, if House Democrats allowed their normal amount of time between the revenue forecast and the publication of their budget proposal, their plan would come out on April 1. Count on them to adjust the timing to avoid releasing "the April Fools' Day budget."

Things aren't all bad. The country largely avoided the so-called "fiscal cliff" with legislation passed late in January, recent jobs numbers are looking up, and housing sales in the state have shown signs of recovery. Still, the effects of federal sequestration and an overall belt-tightening in Washington, D.C., will inevitably trickle down to the state level — and the economist-run council will include those factors in its outlook.

The budgets that follow the report will be the straightest talk of the year about exactly how the two parties propose making ends meet. The politicians will finally have to get very specific about what money goes where, who gets how much, and how they intend to make up the difference between what they've got and what they want.

Washington does have one potential source of revenue some states don't, however: marijuana. This week also sees the start of public discussion on a proposal from Enumclaw Democratic Rep. Chris Hurst to amend the initiative. Hurst's amendment, which will be discussed at a public hearing Tuesday, wouldn't specifically divert any of the funds carefully earmarked in the initiative for public health, but it would open a potential can of worms. Any lawmaker could tack language of their own onto the amendment, and several have already proposed diverting some of the money to education.

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Tom James

Tom James

Tom James is a feature writer and photographer from Kingston, Washington, who has reported from Seattle, Olympia, Guatemala, Jordan, and the Olympic Peninsula on topics ranging from drug use in the Navy to the silent epidemic of PTSD among refugees and what happens when fathers are deported. You can find his contact information at http://www.tom-james.net