State revenues to reach $50B but new fees or taxes loom

The state has never had so much money to spend on government. Inslee says it is still not enough.

  • Thursday, November 29, 2018 8:30am
  • Opinion

Fifty billion dollars.

It will soon be the subject of many conversations in hallways, hearing rooms and other Capitol hangouts as it is the amount of revenue Washington’s revved-up economy is expected to produce for use in the next state budget.

And $50 billion is a milestone figure.

No governor or Legislature has ever had that much money to spend on government services and programs.

To put in perspective, when I moved to Washington in early 2004, the economic forecast called for $22.9 billion in tax collections in the entire two-year budget cycle.

Now, the economy is already generating more than that every fiscal year.

As things stand now, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee and the Democrat-led majorities in the House and Senate will have $50 billion to parse out in the 2019-21 budget they must adopt next year. That’s without touching the state’s $1.63 billion in cash reserves or $1.6 billion rainy day fund.

But — and you knew this was coming — they say it’s not enough.

The price of maintaining the same level of government-funded services is going up as the state’s population grows. And a few bills, like those tied to education funding and the McCleary case, are still getting paid off.

Already this year Inslee and Democratic leaders are openly expressing a desire to find new streams of revenue because there is more to cover than simply what in Olympia speak are known as the “carryforward” and “maintenance” level expenses of government.

For example, a few agencies need a bailout for unexpected debts.

Like the state Public Disclosure Commission. Its lawyer, the Office of the Attorney General, is churning up huge bills in pursuit of alleged scofflaws of Washington’s campaign finance laws like Tim Eyman of Mukilteo.

And the Washington State Patrol has racked up a few hundred thousand dollars in overtime and other expenses safeguarding Inslee as he bounded around the country campaigning for gubernatorial candidates and, maybe, laying the groundwork for his own 2020 bid for president.

Those bills are too small to not be paid.

What’s really going to drive the debate in Olympia are items with large price tags.

For example, Inslee’s staff negotiated new collective bargaining agreements with a slew of unions. If funded, most state employees will get raises of at least 6 percent in the next two years. The cost is $1.9 billion.

Mental and behavioral health services is another big ticket. A settlement in the Trueblood case requires the state to speed up evaluation of the mental competency of people accused of crimes and get them into treatment faster.

That won’t be cheap. The Department of Social and Health Services is looking for roughly $330 million in this biennium as a down payment on tearing down and rebuilding Western State Hospital, one of two state psychiatric hospitals. The cost of that alone could reach $800 million.

And demands will be made for more dollars to reduce homelessness, combat opioid addiction, improve forest management and protect orcas.

Inslee’s approach to making ends meet will be revealed in December when he proposes a budget for the two-year period that starts July 1, 2019. Lawmakers will consider his recommendations in the course of drafting their own spending plan in the 105-day legislative session beginning in January.

When Inslee met with The Daily Herald’s editorial board in October, he would not say what he’s contemplating. He said it’s a challenge and lawmakers are “going to have to look for money from other sources” because he won’t let them cut core government services.

While $50 billion is going to be talked about a lot very soon.

So, too, is how it’s not enough.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos

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Don C. Brunell is a regional columnist.