Aligning spending priorities with the people’s priorities

As the weeks became months for those of us crafting the Senate operating-budget, and the plan itself crept closer to the 400-page mark, it helped to pause and remember that our task was about more than making policies and allocating dollars.

We were making choices that would affect people’s lives, be it the student who is counting on government to provide the tools he or she needs to succeed, the small-business owner who is trying to keep the doors open, or the person with mental-health challenges who will struggle even more without state support.

I relied on a clear set of priorities to guide my decision-making and serve as a reminder of what we were hoping to achieve.

First, we must avoid hindering the slow but gradual recovery of our state’s fragile economy, which meant the Senate budget couldn’t increase tax burdens on families and small businesses.

Second, we must start down a path that improves Washington’s education system – not only through funding but from the policies that connect additional dollars to improved student learning.

Finally, we must preserve the infrastructure and network to support our most vulnerable friends and neighbors who need care.

I believe most Washingtonians would agree with these priorities – and I know for certain that Republicans and Democrats in the Senate share them. That is why, since day one, the Senate budget-building process has been collaborative and bipartisan. The Senate’s new leaders chose to leave the partisan bickering to the “other Washington” and work across the aisle to address our many challenges.

Many wondered aloud how the Senate could successfully address these issues without general tax increases. Here’s how.

During the next budget cycle the state anticipates collecting almost $2 billion more in revenue under our existing tax structure. Because our plan prioritizes spending on education, we allocate almost 90 percent of that revenue towards early learning, K-12 and higher education. Public-school and higher-education spending would both increase from the previous budget by more than 10 percent, and early learning by 20 percent.

However, it’s inefficient to simply pour more money into a system that fails one out of every four students. That’s why this dramatically larger investment in education is being connected to outcome-driven education policies. Doesn’t it make sense that as funding for education increases, students should emerge from our schools and higher-ed institutions better prepared to advance in life?

At the same time, government is the means through which we provide essential services and the Senate plan provides targeted funding and refined programs for low-income children who need health care and food, people who are developmentally disabled, senior citizens who need help, and mental-health coverage.

Still, to provide these services and ensure that school superintendents, hospital administrators, non-profit directors and others can develop long-term plans to meet demand, we need a budget that’s sustainable. It was important, then, to craft a plan that does not rely on new taxes or temporary measures that make it more difficult for businesses to plan for the future.

At a time when there are as many positive as negative economic indicators, increasing taxes would slow down our recovery, taking money families have earned and need out of their pockets. It would also hamper growth as businesses both small and large continue to grow, and bring on employees to meet rising demand.

The Senate plan meets the new requirement that budgets balance for the next four years.  Many of the gimmicks used in past budgets that created future deficits aren’t responsible options and are not used in the Senate budget.

By setting priorities and making difficult decisions – something all Washington residents must do and should expect from their elected representatives – we’ve developed a plan that won’t endanger the state’s financial well-being, enhances our commitment to public education and continues providing the government services Washington residents expect.