The good news from February's revised state revenue forecast is that the dreary days of perpetually downward forecasts are officially over. The bad news is that after years of budget cuts, revenue growth remains relatively flat.
Revenue for the current 2013-2015 biennial budget is now projected to come in $30 million higher than the November forecast—about $33 billion total. The revenue forecast for the 2015-2017 biennium has also been pushed up by another $82 million, to about $35.7 billion total. But while that projected 4 percent annual revenue growth may seem healthy to the uninitiated, adjusted for inflation, state 2017 revenues will still fall short of their pre-Great Recession peak, despite a significant increase in population.
Sure, such modest revenue growth is better than a decline, but it does little to restore previous cuts, let alone meet our state's growing needs. And it should make clear once and for all that it is mathematically impossible to meet the state Supreme Court's mandate under the McCleary decision to add an additional $4.5 billion in K-12 spending to the 2017-2019 budget without substantially raising taxes.
You find another $4.5 billion in cuts in discretionary spending from elsewhere in the budget. It just can't be done!
The point is, any notion that we can simply outgrow this problem is pure fantasy. Washington's antiquated sales-tax-dependent tax system has left us with a structural revenue deficit that has been steadily shrinking state government as a percentage of the overall economy for decades. Just 20 years ago state general fund revenues consumed 6.9 percent of personal income; that has fallen to 4.9 percent today. And no amount of economic recovery can reverse this longterm trend.
To be clear: The Legislature cannot meet McCleary without raising new taxes. And if they don't meet McCleary, they will be in direct violation a binding court order. I'm not sure how this inevitable constitutional crisis ultimately plays out, but it is hard to categorize the legislature's inaction as anything but contempt.
UPDATE: The Washington State Budget & Policy Center adds to the analysis and provides an updated graph on projected state revenue.