Better revenue forecasts and some unexpected cost savings means the state budget problem isn’t as big as was thought just a few weeks ago; the deficit is about $500 million smaller.
As a result, many Democrats think they can fill the $1 billion hole that remains without any major new revenue, including a half-cent increase in the sales tax.
Still, the lead budget writer in the state House now wants to let cities and counties raise the sales tax on their own. He argues it’s a good way for them to make up for impending cuts to local law enforcement, local public health programs, and local drug treatment.
“We can no longer afford to do it, and we’re not,” said state Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina. “We’re going to stop. So, that’s the choice we are making here, that’s how I would characterize it.”
Hunter’s proposal, which still needs approval, would give cities or counties the ability to raise the sales tax by one-tenth of a cent to two-tenths of a cent.
That’s not as much as the statewide half-cent increase proposed by Gov. Christine Gregoire, but still an increase at a tough time. And the proposal would allow local leaders to impose the tax on their own.
“If they want to put it to a vote of the people,” Hunter said, “that’s their choice, but I think we ought to be able to trust our local governments to make decisions that are appropriate for them.”
Republicans are certainly happy that Democrats have all but abandoned a general sales tax increase. But they are concerned about giving local governments this authority.
“It looks a little like they’re trying to do an end-run around the two-thirds vote requirement for raising taxes at the state level,” said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia.
Lawmakers have until March 6 to come up with a budget. Otherwise, they have to go into a special legislative session.