Yesterday's stern Washington State Supreme Court ruling demanding that the state explain why it has come up short on the Court's 2012 McCleary mandate to fully fund education (with a warning that the Court is going to make them pay up) hit at a vulnerable moment: In preparation for the governor's 2015-17 budget proposal, state agencies are currently—as requested by the Office of Financial Management—preparing their own budgets with the news from OFM that even with an estimated $2 billion in new revenue coming in, the state would still be $1 billion short to cover everything that the current $34 billion 2013-2015 biennium budget pays for.
OFM provided the following slide to state agencies to dramatize the issue:
This sobering news makes the Court's order even more of a Sisyphean task. For example, as the OFM slide also points out, in addition to the $1 billion shortfall to even fund the status quo (including the current $16 billion for K-12 education), McCleary calls for an extra $1 to $2 billion in education funding in the 2015-2017 budget.
The news certainly upends the GOP's preferred solution to the Court order—legislation mandating that the budgeting process funds "education first" before addressing any other needs.
"'Funding education first' is a great talking point," says Kim Justice, an economist with the progressive Washington State Budget and Policy Center think tank, "but in practice it's harmful to kids. It's a recipe for devastating cuts for all the other things that kids need to succeed."
And it's worth noting that there was another slide that came with the OFM directive, showing that Washington State is on the far low-end nationwide (35th) in state revenue collected per personal income, nearly $10 below the national average.
In his June 3 letter to staff about the budget exercise, Secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services Kevin Quigley wrote:
Finally, I cannot help but to call your attention to the second slide I attached which says much about why we face the budget shortfall we do. Whilst we long term Washingtonians (and you happy transplants) like to view our state as a progressive place that invests in our social programs alongside the most innovative states, years of long decline in revenue collections have moved Washington from the top tier in revenue collection to the bottom half. With all due respect to Mississippians, when our state comes to rank two places below Mississippi in revenue collection it is impossible for our social service system to sustain itself.
In the context of yesterday's Court announcement, the Washington State Budget & Policy Center summarized the problem with the GOP approach (noting the harsh reality of Quigley's observation) with the following statement today:
Providing a quality basic education is the paramount duty of our state, but children need more than just K-12 to thrive. Early learning, higher education, environmental protections, health and human services, and transportation are all critical to a strong foundation of opportunity for all our residents and a strong economy.
Some have suggested that we must fund education first without new revenue but the math simply doesn't pencil out. Current revenues are projected to fall short of the amount needed to maintain existing levels of education and other public investments.
After years of deep cuts that have diminished opportunities for kids and hurt our economy, it’s time for policymakers to take a hard look at fixing Washington’s state’s outdated and inequitable tax system. Closing wasteful tax breaks and taxing windfall profits from the sale of corporate stocks and other high-end financial assets, as 42 other states do, would be a good start.