Rep. J.T. Wilcox: State lawmakers should consider economic uncertainties before spending budget surplus

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As published in The Seattle Times

House and Senate Democrats in the state Legislature are meeting behind closed doors to work out the details of the supplemental operating budget — with little to no input from Republicans

Due to a strong economy, skyrocketing tax collections and fewer people needing state services, the operating budget has a $2.4 billion surplus — providing budget writers with countless options and enormous flexibility.

As the 2020 legislative session approaches its scheduled end Thursday, I encourage my colleagues to consider the uncertainty on the horizon as they contemplate the best approach for our state's future. That includes continuing uncertainty around the repercussions Boeing is facing over its grounded 777X and the unfolding economic damage from the novel coronavirus. The latter is serious enough that the Legislature just allocated $100 million from the state's rainy-day fund to respond to this public-health emergency.

House Democrats passed a budget proposal on a party-line vote Friday that would spend nearly all the surplus. It would create a bow wave of future spending obligations that would compound over time. If implemented, state spending in this budget cycle would increase by 74% since 2013.

This is not sustainable. And it would set our state up for serious problems.

While our state is experiencing historically high tax collections, our budget situation is not unprecedented. In 2007, our state had a $2.2 billion surplus. At the time, Republicans warned that Democrats, who also controlled both the House and Senate, were overspending and setting the stage for a deficit. These concerns were ignored. And we all know what happened next: The Great Recession.

The decisions of budget writers in 2007 led to devastating cuts to important services and programs in the years that followed. I was directly involved with some of these decisions in 2011 as the only freshman state representative on what was then the House Ways and Means Committee. In fact, they were some of the first votes I ever had to make. It was terrible. And I still think about it to this day.

The lesson I learned nearly a decade ago is this: People get hurt when the Legislature budgets in a way that is too optimistic. And it is not state lawmakers or state employees who suffer, it is our most vulnerable populations — seniors, people with developmental disabilities and the homeless. People who have been disconnected from their families, communities and faith, and rely on our state for help.

I fear the current Democratic leadership is going to repeat the mistakes of the past and set people up for pain in our next economic downturn. History tells us that a rainy day will come. And we cannot ignore the gathering storm clouds or the extended length of our economic recovery.

House Republicans believe in effective government and accountability. We recently offered two alternative budget solutions. Believe it or not, both were based largely on the governor's supplemental operating budget — a proposal that was widely championed when it was released in January.

Both solutions also offered tax relief to Washingtonians. They were rejected by the House majority.

In the House floor debate on the budget, I shared some of the same concerns laid out in this piece. After the debate, I received feedback from a prominent House Democrat who basically said he agreed with my sentiments. It meant a lot to me, and I appreciated his candor.

Even though the House and Senate have both passed budget proposals, there is still a great deal of room to negotiate. It is critical to the future of our state — and the health and welfare of our most vulnerable citizens — that we avoid the mistake of spending all the surplus.

I challenge the majority to come up with a supplemental operating budget that spends at least $1 billion less than the House Democratic budget that passed last Friday and puts the rest aside for the inevitable rainy day.

State Representative J.T. Wilcox, 2nd Legislative District
335C Legislative Building | P.O. Box 40600 | Olympia, WA 98504-0600
360-786-7912 | Toll-free: (800) 562-6000