It has been seven months since the end of the most recent special session. Seven months since this Legislature had to make cuts and reductions that tore at the very fabric of our state. Sadly, we find ourselves convened once more to address the largest and most persistent fiscal crisis since 1929. After nearly $10.5 billion in cuts to projected spending over the past three years, the most recent revenue forecast tells us that our state is facing an additional $2 billion deficit.
That being said, I assure you that in the midst of reductions and the pain associated with them, there is a silver lining. The budget crisis is finally being viewed as a structural revenue problem by a growing number of legislators. In seven months, many legislators and the Governor have moved from “no” on revenue to a desperate plea for new revenue. During her budget unveiling (video here), Governor Gregoire announced the details of a revenue plan that would help buy back critical funding for education, social services, and public safety in our state.
The Governor has opened the door for a thoughtful analysis of our state’s balance sheet, and it is no secret that I’ve been a longtime supporter of a comprehensive examination and alteration of our state’s tax code. A constructive dialogue on taxation is long overdue. I am hopeful that leaders in the public and private sector will sincerely commit to an exploration of options beyond the all-cuts approach that has dominated the debate over the last several years.
It is important that this Legislature approach revenue options with the knowledge that, while a short term fix may be necessary, a long term solution is what is desperately needed to best prepare our state for future success. I know that the only way to ensure adequate funding for education, our social safety net, and public safety is to reform our current tax code. Our tax code is outdated, regressive, and wrought with almost 600 exemptions that are rarely reviewed and scrutinized. In fact, even the Association of Washington Business has warmed up to a review of our tax code.
The Governor has proposed a ½ cent temporary increase in the sales tax statewide. While the Governor’s proposal is an important short-term step in the revenue discussion; it does not reach far enough to produce the lasting change that is needed. A temporary half penny increase on the sales tax assumes that the problem is time-limited, and it adds to the regressive nature of our state’s tax code. We need to start crafting a long-term solution now in the hopes of real reform. We must take advantage of this opportunity to diversify our revenue, simplify our tax code, and ensure that each Washingtonian is equally contributing to the future success of our state.
Why does this tax reformation mean so much to you and I? Besides cuts to vital support services for people today, the budget havoc has also forced serious cuts to our higher education system. As globalization has become our new reality, our children will only maintain a growing standard of living by accessing higher levels of education and skill attainment throughout their lives. One of the greatest reasons for reforming our tax code is the opportunity to increase access and funding to higher education for all students in our state. A world-class workforce will keep our businesses competitive and will provide the incentives necessary to start and expand a business in Washington State.
I am proposing a decided shift in thinking about our tax code, a shift that will impact citizens across our state. I am currently working with constituents, stakeholder groups, and my colleagues here in the Legislature to ensure that this proposal is well understood. I know that this process will be grueling and that working towards long-term solutions is often counter to the culture of a two-year budget cycle and a two-year election cycle. We don’t have the luxury of putting this off any longer. We are beyond ideological debates about the size and scope of government. Essential services and programs, that are the foundation of our future success, are at risk and every rational mind knows this. I will keep you updated as this plan progresses.
Please stay tuned, as this is a pivotal moment in our state’s history and it is incumbent on all of us to remain informed and engaged.