Don’t Let the Talking Points Fool You: Senate Republicans’ Budget Proposal Is a House of Cards
The state budget is not just a statement of our values. It is also a foundation and framework for delivering the everyday services that benefit us all – like ensuring everyone has the opportunity to thrive, making sure we have clean water to drink and air to breathe, and keeping school buses and fire trucks running each day. Republican leaders in the state Senate have proposed a two-year spending plan that would profoundly weaken that framework by slashing vital investments that help Washington’s communities and people prosper – and by failing to come up with the revenue needed to fund schools and other key priorities. Their plan would turn the state budget into a house of cards, at risk of collapsing at the first sign of a slowdown in the economy. And the human cost in terms of the well-being of Washingtonians would be staggering.
Building a responsible and sustainable budget requires lawmakers to take steps toward fixing Washington’s upside-down tax code, which taxes middle- and lower-income households at significantly higher rates than those at the very top of the income scale. Yet the proposal from Republican leaders in the state Senate offers no meaningful reforms to the state’s flawed tax code.
Far from raising the substantial new revenue needed to fully fund education and protect the programs that help Washingtonians who are struggling to make ends meet, their “levy swap” proposal would actually reduce overall property tax resources for schools in our state. It would also be deeply inequitable, raising taxes on millions of lower- and middle-income homeowners and renters in the Puget Sound region.
What’s more, Senate Republicans actually propose creating or extending nine tax breaks, totaling $13.5 million in giveaways in the 2017-2019 budget cycle.
Rather than working to flip our tax code right-side up and improve our quality of life, Senate Republican leaders propose a state budget that nominally balances, but only with the help of unsustainable gimmicks, such as:
- Forcing future lawmakers to make deep cuts to non-K-12 investments – such as health care, child care, job training, safe communities, and other important investments – by dedicating all future revenue growth to maintaining K-12 spending and property tax cuts.
- Draining $700 million in reserve savings from our state’s rainy day fund, the budget stabilization account, which is an essential backstop that prevents severe disruptions in funding for our most important services during recessions and other state emergencies. And Senate Republican leaders offer no plan to replenish it.
- Sweeping $63 million from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to pay for other unrelated budget items. TANF is an essential resource for families trying to get back on their feet. This proposal would take much-needed resources out of programs that help the people who have the hardest time making ends meet and dole those resources out for other investments.
As shown in the chart below, the budget proposal from Senate Republicans would boost state funding for education, but at the expense of essential investments in Washingtonians’ economic security and in community development and trust. Within those categories are programs that are essential to many Washingtonians – programs like TANF, Housing and Essential Needs, state retirement contributions for first responders, and the programs we all count on to protect our legal rights. Thousands of Washingtonians’ lives would be severely and negatively affected by these cuts – and in many cases, they are the people who are already struggling just to get by every day.
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The proposed changes to funding, according to the major value areas laid out in the Budget & Policy Center’s Progress Index framework, are detailed in the sections that follow.
The McCleary Supreme Court case’s school funding mandate has been the most prominent issue in the legislative session so far – and for good reason. Excellent schools are one of the foundations of a thriving economy, and the legislature is facing a deadline for fully funding those schools. While the Senate’s proposed budget increases K-12 education funding by $1.8 billion, or by 7 percent, it makes huge cuts to early learning – slashing $36 million from child care programs. This is because the Senate doesn’t actually raise the necessary new revenue to fund K-12 education, despite the speaking points that make it sound otherwise. The proposals include:
- Undermining the foundations for high-quality early learning, especially for low-income children and families. The Senate plan would limit access to Washington’s Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program – our state’s preschool program that serves families living in poverty – by eliminating 3 year olds from the program and not adding any new slots over the next two years despite 23,000 unserved eligible children in the state. It also guts Early Achievers, our state’s key resource for early learning professionals to access coaching and tools to provide high-quality early care.
- Repealing voter-approved education initiatives. The budget would repeal initiatives 1351 and 732, measures passed by Washington voters to reduce class sizes and fund teacher cost-of-living raises. Refusing to implement voter-approved teacher cost-of-living raises is out of step with the goal of fully funding K-12 education.
- Overhauling the current school funding formula to change the way state disburses money to schools throughout the state. Even though the plan would require sizeable and commendable new investments in K-12 schools, the Senate has proposed to pay for its plan with a levy swap proposal that would actually reduce property tax resources for schools compared to the current system.
- Prioritizing STEM and medical education over the needs of struggling working families. The Senate’s budget provides some increases in the higher education budget. But these investments would come at the expense of the lowest-income working families: $47 million is ransacked from WorkFirst – Washington’s job training and assistance program for families with young children who are trying to get back on their feet – to pay for them. Lawmakers should not be pitting working the needs of families against those of people seeking higher education opportunities.
A community with a thriving economy fosters great jobs and supports working families, ensures stable and healthy housing for everyone, and provides economic opportunity for Washingtonians to meet their basic needs. The Senate Republicans’ proposal eviscerates the parts of our budget that make these values a reality for residents, particularly targeting those programs that relieve hardship among the lowest-income working people. This budget would cut funding for economic security by $132 million, a staggering 13 percent decrease from the amount necessary to maintain current services. Proposed changes include:
- Cutting assistance for people with disabilities at risk of homelessness. This proposal would do away with the Housing and Essential Needs program that provides housing-related assistance to people unable to work because of disabilities. It replaces it with a new program that would only be available to people with dependent children, essentially eliminating services for seniors and single adults and all but guaranteeing an increase in homelessness. It also cuts another crucial program for people with disabilities – the Aged, Blind, and Disabled program – by limiting the time people can be on it to 36 months.
- Ransacking resources from job training programs to plug holes in other parts of the budget. The proposal moves $63 million out of the WorkFirst program and uses the money for other unrelated purposes, such as replacing funding cuts to colleges and universities.
- Pushing people off basic assistance and making it harder for new people to get on. TANF provides basic supports to families with children who are financially struggling. The Senate Republican budget would cut people off the program who have a disability, or people who are needed at home to care for a family member with a disability. It would also require new applicants to prove that they have been unable to find a job before applying for benefits, but it fails to provide necessary help to applicants in their efforts, such as providing for child care while parents are job-hunting. When other states have implemented similar procedural hurdles for families, they saw increases in hardship and spikes in homelessness.
- Limiting options for working families to access child care so parents can go to work. The plan makes Working Connections Child Care, Washington’s largest child care subsidy program for families with low incomes, more difficult to access by changing eligibility requirements, capping enrollment, and creating more red tape for participants.
Washingtonians enjoy clean air and water and an excellent health care system that supports the wellbeing of a vast majority of Washington’s residents. The state budget provides for those benefits by investing in public health clinics, climate protection measures, and mental health services. The proposal would increase funding in this area by only $75 million, a less-than-1-percent boost. The proposals include:
- Failing to provide adequate investments in mental health services. Compared to the budget proposed by Governor Inslee, this budget falls short on the immediate investments to address safety and staffing issues at Western State Hospital – in fact, this proposal would close down two entire wards – and fails to make the investments needed to build a strong community system into the future.
- Missing opportunities to invest in public health, and to safeguard against proposed federal cuts. As the federal government considers cutting back federal support for health care, it is alarming to see leaders in our state Senate propose underinvestment in our public health system and health benefits for state workers. The budget also threatens the health insurance coverage for tens of thousands of home care workers who support our vulnerable seniors and people with disabilities.
- Threatening health care innovation reforms that are part of the Washington State Medicaid Transformation Project. This initiative is designed to help Washingtonians achieve better health outcomes, to reward high-quality care, and to curb health care costs in the state Medicaid program. The Senate’s budget would create a roadblock to continuing this initiative and to receiving the $1.5 billion in federal funds it was slated to receive.
- Reducing investments in programs that are protecting our state’s air and water. The proposal fails to provide resources to adequately sustain work to clean Puget Sound, a clean-up project that is also facing a federal funding threat from the Trump administration’s proposed budget. And no state funding is provided to implement the Clean Air Rule, an effort by Inslee’s administration to reduce carbon pollution in our state. The proposal would also cut or fail to fund investments in restoring salmon and protecting habitat.
COMMUNITY DEVELOPMENT & TRUST
Good quality of life for Washingtonians includes safe communities to live in, access to beautiful parks and historical spaces, an open government that runs smoothly and efficiently, and the assurance of transparent and fair elections. This budget would undermine community development and trust by cutting current programs by $107 million, a 1.8 percent decrease from maintenance levels. The major changes include:
- Failing to invest in tens of thousands of front-line workers, like nurses, home care workers, child care workers, highway maintenance workers, and other public employees by rejecting collective bargaining agreements already negotiated (with the exception of corrections workers and Washington State Patrol troopers and lieutenants). It also exacerbates ongoing issues with recruitment and retention throughout state government by mandating indiscriminate layoffs at state agencies. This would make it nearly impossible for our state agencies to deliver high-quality, timely services to the public.
- Reducing resources for those who serve to uphold the law for all Washingtonians. Under this budget, state agencies that work to protect the legal rights of everyday citizens would see huge cuts. The Office of Civil Legal Aid would be cut by $10 million (36 percent) and the Office of the Attorney General, which represents our state in legal matters that benefit us all, such as lawsuits against the federal government, would be cut by $20 million (78 percent). The cuts to the Office of the Attorney General in ongoing funding would be temporarily replaced by shifting one-time resources from a lawsuit.
- Reducing state contributions to retirement systems for first responders. Contributions to retirement systems are reduced by $159 million (a 74 percent reduction from maintenance levels), largely because of a $109 million cut to retirement contributions for police and firefighters.
The state Senate Republican leaders take a page out of the book of Republicans in the other Washington – making deep cuts to the very investments that people throughout our state rely on, and across every area that we use to measure progress. It would be particularly stark for the people who are struggling to make ends meet. And it also includes a host of irresponsible and unsustainable financial stunts that add up to a budget that would collapse under its own weight.
A solid budget framework is the foundation for a strong economic future for Washington and its people. The Senate Republicans should rework their budget with an eye toward strengthening our state’s communities and the foundations that support them.