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Op-ed: State lawmakers have the right budget approach for our recovery

State policies – backed up by investments in the state budget – are moral documents, and they have the power to support a better life for all Washingtonians and build a brighter future after COVID-19.

The budget proposals that Democrats in the Washington state House and Senate released last week reflect a smart response to the economic fallout of COVID-19. Lawmakers are rightly following the lead of the U.S. Congress by investing in community needs and a just economic recovery, and sustaining these investments through a tax on extraordinary profits. 

These state-level proposals signal that lawmakers are listening to the people throughout Washington who have been emphatically calling for greater investments in things like child care, rental assistance, and public health as the economic effects of the pandemic wear on. They’re also heeding calls to rectify the racist and harmful underinvestments in and exclusionary policies toward Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities by, in part, dedicating funds to the worker relief fund and to environmental justice. And they’re listening to the community members who’ve been asking them to balance our state tax code so that all Washingtonians contribute equitably to funding public investments.

The truth is Washington state went into the COVID pandemic without the investments and tools we needed to survive several months of job losses, business closures, and changes in consumer spending. Decades of inadequate funding for and cuts to critical public services like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food assistance, and housing support resulted in programs that were quickly overwhelmed. 

As part of a research and policy organization focused on ensuring everyone in our state has the opportunity to thrive, our message to the budget writers who will be hashing out the details of our state budget in the coming weeks is this: We agree that simply returning to the pre-COVID status quo budget isn’t good enough. To build a better future for this state, it’s the right call to dedicate greater resources to fixing the problems that the pandemic has brought to light. And it’s the right call to invest in supporting people with low and moderate incomes and advancing racial justice.

It’s especially important that the Democrats’ budget proposals included funding for programs that create opportunities and improve life for people who have been hit hardest by the pandemic – which, as a result of institutional racism, disproportionately includes BIPOC. Specifically, direct cash stimulus through a Recovery Rebate, also known as an updated Working Families Tax Credit, will provide a base amount of $500 to $950 annually in cash back in the pockets of people with low incomes.

Funding for a long-overdue benefit increase for children  and families receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families/WorkFirst cash grants will enable people who are struggling to make ends meet better afford the basics. And the Immigrant Worker Relief Fund will rightly ensure all communities – regardless of immigration status – have access to economic support. Given that many undocumented workers have put their lives at risk as essential workers throughout this pandemic without having access to federal stimulus money, this program is especially important.

We may not yet be done with COVID, but we can start rebuilding now. Following the passage of the American Rescue Plan at the federal level, Washington state policymakers have an opportunity to transform critical public investments at the state level so that the problems exposed by the COVID pandemic are never repeated. Taxes on extraordinary profits from the sales of financial assets like stocks and bonds will ensure there’s long-term funding when the federal funding – which is an important bridge to recovery – runs out. The tax on capital gains wealth alone, which would be paid for by fewer than 1% of Washingtonians, would provide $500 million per year in permanent new resources for our state.

Returning to a budget that underinvests in and harms too many of our communities is not an option, and we applaud the Senate and House Democrats for proposing a budget that has a bold vision for what our state needs to look like. If we hope to have a just and equitable recovery that sets the stage for a brighter future for people in our state, lawmakers need to ensure these budget proposals make it to the finish line this legislative session in Olympia.

Margaret Babayan is a senior policy analyst and Misha Werschkul is the executive director of the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, an organization that works to advance the economic well-being of people in Washington. 

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