FILE - Money

(The Center Square) – The short, 60-day session of the Washington State Legislature wrapped up earlier this month with lawmakers approving an atypically hefty supplemental budget. This year’s legislative session was also notable for what did not pass: legislation to reform the governor’s emergency powers.  

The Center Square reached out to members of conservative and progressive public policy organizations in Washington to get their thoughts on what lawmakers did and did not do this year regarding the budget and emergency powers.

There were vastly different takes on the supplemental budget the legislature approved to increase state spending to $64.1 billion over two years – some $5 billion more than the budget lawmakers approved last April. The 8% spending increase comes not from new taxes, but through existing tax collections predicted to come in much higher than previously projected.

Jason Mercier, director of the Center for Government Reform at the Washington Policy Center, listed no broad-based tax relief as one of his biggest disappointments of this year’s legislative session.

Maxford Nelsen, labor policy analyst for the Freedom Foundation, also lamented the fact the budget failed to use the state’s rebounding tax revenues to enact any broad-based tax cuts.

“Lawmakers had a massive surplus to work with this year,” Nelsen said in an email to The Center Square. “State government is positively swimming in money. The fact lawmakers couldn’t bring themselves to return even some of the surplus to taxpayers in the form of meaningful tax relief, instead spending every penny growing government and giving handouts to special interests groups, is insulting and entirely unjustifiable.”

Andy Nicholas, senior fellow at the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, had a more positive view of the budget that built on “important advancements made in early 2021 toward restoring funding for community foundations like schools, health care, childcare and early learning, and infrastructure.”

He went on to say, “Heightened funding enacted this year for affordable housing and cash supports for residents who continue to struggle to make ends meet will keep thousands of our neighbors from falling through the cracks while our state recovers from the recession. And the cost-of-living and hazard-pay adjustments for teachers, nurses, and other frontline workers will help ensure our schools and hospitals are adequately staffed and able to meet the ongoing challenges communities face.”

Nichols was not troubled by the budget’s lack of general tax cuts.

“Wasteful tax cuts that lawmakers wisely rejected this year include (but are not limited to) the so-called ‘sales tax holiday’ (HB 2018), and Senate Bill 5769, which would have drained billions of dollars from communities by repealing Washington’s equitable new tax on capital gains wealth above $250,000 per year, enacting a property tax cut that would disproportionately benefit white homeowners, and eliminating the B&O tax for many large, profitable corporations,” he explained. “Squandering one-time reserves on permanent tax cuts is the textbook definition of fiscal recklessness.”

The budget provides $13 million in tax relief in the form of businesses making less than $125,000 a year paying no business and occupation taxes, while those businesses making up to $250,000 a year would see their business and occupation taxes cut in half.

Not making it into the budget: a three-day sales tax holiday around Labor Day that was in the House budget, and the Senate’s initial proposal to make Discover Passes for state parks and lands free for one year.

There seemed to be some bipartisan agreement on the legislature’s failure to rein in the emergency powers Gov. Jay Inslee has exercised since Feb. 29, 2020, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In terms of what did not pass, there’s always lots that gets left on the cutting room floor due to politics and the time constraints of session, especially a short sixty-day session like this year’s,” Andrew Villeneuve, founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, wrote in an email.

Villeneuve included emergency powers reform on a list of legislation he wished had passed this session.

Lack of emergency powers reform was another major disappointment for Mercier.

Nelsen agreed.

“The legislature’s failure to pass any kind of reform to the governor’s emergency powers was an absolute dereliction of duty,” he said. “The COVID-19 pandemic was certainly serious enough to warrant some use of the governor’s authority to act promptly in an emergency, but any system that allows one person to single-handedly run the state for years on end is fundamentally broken and inherently undemocratic.”

Staff Reporter

Brett Davis reports on Washington state government for The Center Square. He previously worked for public policy organizations the Freedom Foundation and Washington Farm Bureau, as well as various community newspapers.