Remember how state government had a $15 billion budget surplus during this year’s legislative session? At the time, I and other Republicans said some of that should be returned to the people, in the form of tax reductions. We offered several money-saving proposals that could have been included among the mid-cycle adjustments made to the state budget.
The current majority in the Legislature said no to providing one dime’s worth of direct, substantial tax relief to the typical Washington family. Even something as simple as ending the tax on diapers was rejected. Instead, our Democratic colleagues put more priority on expanding government. The budget adjustments they adopted included funding for more than 1,300 new policy-related appropriations, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $6 billion.
The majority budget leaders in the Senate and House of Representatives claimed all that new spending represented “targeted investments,” adding there was “something to help everyone get through the end of this pandemic together.”
Everyone? Tell that to the working people and middle-income families across Washington who are grappling with a rate of inflation never seen by anyone younger than 40. Showering billions on state agencies won’t end the affordability crisis in our state. It won’t help people handle much-higher prices for food, gas, energy, housing and more.
Recently our state’s chief economist predicted the financial outlook for state government should continue to be sunny, through the current two-year budget cycle and into the next. There’s more than enough money to support a suspension of the 49.4 cent state gas tax for the rest of 2022, without affecting a single state program or service.
Again, Democrats are saying no.
“We don’t want to make short-term decisions that have long-term implications,” declared the chair of the House committee on appropriations, citing the “volatility and uncertainty” tied to supply-chain concerns, the attack on Ukraine and so on.
Instead, he said, it’s time for more “targeted investments.”
Let’s unpack that. First, pessimism didn’t stop the majority side from pumping billions more into government a few months ago, yet now it’s an excuse for once again denying direct tax relief to the people. Talk about trying to have it both ways. It’s as though Democrats forget whose money it is, after all.
Also, this year’s move to fatten state-agency budgets comes with its own long-term implications. When Washington’s economy slows, as it inevitably will, legislators will have three choices should tax collections decline enough to push the state operating budget into the red: put agencies on a diet, raise taxes to prop up agency spending, or both. I can tell you which path our Democratic colleagues would likely take, should they have control of the Legislature at that point.
But here’s the larger question: Why do Democrats refuse to view tax relief for Washington families as an equally important “targeted investment”?
A temporary suspension of the gas tax would be a targeted investment in people who have no choice but to drive to work or medical appointments or the kids’ soccer practice. Senate Bill 5897, the proposal Republicans put on the table months ago, would immediately save 49.4 cents per gallon, and contains language to specifically prevent big-oil profiteering while protecting funding for transportation infrastructure.
Senate Bill 5463, the permanent property tax exemption I proposed, is obviously targeted toward property owners. The investment it represents would be especially helpful to people with lower-valued homes. A reduction in the state sales tax, even temporarily, would be a progressive investment in consumers in lower income brackets.
There is no end in sight for this wave of inflation — and on top of that, there’s the state income tax and the long-term care payroll tax and other taxes and cost increases that are looming for 2023, all put in place by the current majority.
If legislators truly have empathy for the financial struggles many of their constituents are experiencing, they’ll realize the value of allowing people to keep more of their own money. Tax relief, not a larger state government, is the “targeted investment” the typical Washington family needs most.
Sen. Lynda Wilson, R-Vancouver, is budget leader for the Senate Republican Caucus. She serves Washington’s 17th Legislative District.