With Washington’s legislative session wrapped up, representatives from districts around the Eastside gathered at the Snoqualmie Casino on June 27 to give some insight into the big themes of the session, what was discussed, and what to look for in the future.
Hosted by the East King County Chambers of Commerce Legislative Coalition, 12 legislators answered questions from moderator Randy Bannecker of the Seattle King County Realtors on topics like the budget, education, transportation and housing.
Legislators at the event were Rep. Lisa Callan, Sen. Phil Fortunato, Rep. Roger Goodman, Rep. Shelley Kloba, Sen. Mark Mullet, Rep. Tana Senn, Rep. Vandana Slatter, Rep. Larry Springer, Rep. Drew Stokesbary, Rep. My-Linh Thai, Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, and Sen. Bob Hasegawa.
The legislative session ended in April with a $52.4 billion biennial budget. Bannecker said that while many were happy with what was accomplished in the session, businesses were shocked by increases to the Business and Occupation (B&O) tax and the graduated real estate excise tax.
With a growing economy the state had $50.6 billion to work with, Bannecker said, so what was the need for an additional $1.8 billion in revenue generated through additional taxation?
Rep. Larry Springer cited the amount of time the Legislature spent working to meet state obligations to fully fund education under the McCleary decision. The state had more than $4 billion in additional revenue, he said, but that money was spent on additional “carry forward” costs to support the education systems put in place in previous years.
“We could have stopped right there, no tax increase,” Springer said. “However that would have meant we did nothing for the opioid crisis, mental health problems, for our jail sentencing reform, higher ed. system, let alone the south resident orcas, and the housing affordability problem we have.”
Sen. Mark Mullet said he voted against the budget with tax increases. He was frustrated by the spending side of the budget and said the expansion of health care in the K-12 education space was something the state couldn’t completely afford so new taxes were generated to fund that expansion.
Rep. Drew Stokesbary said Springer was right regarding the need to pay for carryover costs, but disagreed with the way the budget ultimately did it. He said the Legislature could have made several other tweaks or changes in a variety of situations to increase the spending capacity without raising taxes.
“Not using gimmicks,” Stokesbary said. “Using the same approaches to the budget that legislators passed every year I’ve been there with broad bipartisan majorities.”
Another big theme of the night was the work that has been done on housing. Rep. Tana Senn noted the bill that reduced condominium liability laws put in place in the 1990s. She said the liability reform will encourage high-end condo development which has rebounded in Washington, as well as more affordable condos.
“We also wanted to make sure we address issues around homelessness, and part of that was through eviction reform — making sure that people weren’t homeless in the first place,” Senn said. “And making sure we allowed local governments some flexibility and some sales tax relief on affordable housing projects, so that cities could recognize the needs in their own communities and really address those locally.”
The future of funding for transportation in the state was one of the final topics of discussions. Mullet and Sen. Phil Fortunato cited the possibility of a bill that could divert revenue growth from sales tax on cars to the transportation budget.
The transportation budget has the lowest growth of any budget in Olympia, Mullet said. There has been discussion about a potential bill that could divert growth in the operating budget over a certain threshold to transportation. Bringing sales tax on vehicles to the transportation budget has also been proposed by Fortunato in the past.
“You should start to take some of the sales tax on cars and say once the operating budget has grown above certain level, you start to invest sales tax on vehicles back into the transportation budget, and I think you could very realistically start to plug in $200 or $300 million dollars every biennium where your transferring from operating budget into the transportation budget,” Mullet said. “…Now that we’ve met some of our McCleary requirements, I think that should be the main topic of discussion in Olympia going forward. If we don’t earmark that money for transportation before we all sit around and do our op. budget spreadsheets, the money will get spent in other places. If we want transportation to be a priority, we can make it a priority through actions we take in the Legislature.”