For this Legislature, it all comes down to money

January 5, 2009

By Jon Savelle

When the Legislature convenes Jan. 12, its members will attempt to accomplish one primary task during their 105-day session: close a budget gap of $5.7 billion. The whopping deficit is largely due to the national economic depression, according to a statement issued by Gov. Chris Gregoire with her budget proposal. Sharp declines in consumer spending have dramatically reduced state sales tax revenues, the backbone of the budget.

On Dec. 18, Gregoire proposed a budget that cuts spending by $3.5 billion, taps the rainy-day fund for $609 million and assumes that Washington will receive $1 billion from the federal government in an economic stimulus package. The Legislature will consider her proposal, plus others from the House and Senate, and then adopt a final budget that probably will contain elements of each.

In any case, the cuts will be difficult. For example, Gregoire proposed a combination of program reductions; suspension of state employee, teacher and care worker salary increases; pension changes; a hiring freeze; closures of some state parks; and dozens of other reductions large and small.

Some $1.4 billion of Gregoire’s cuts are aimed at health and human services, including $500 million from programs serving children, the poor and disabled.

In the 5th Legislative District, where Reps. Jay Rodne and Glenn Anderson and Sen. Cheryl Pflug are Republicans and therefore in the minority in Olympia, the coming budget struggle will be a challenge. But Rodne and Anderson couldn’t resist blaming part of the problem on the spending policies of Gregoire, a Democrat, and the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate.

Anderson, of Fall City, also questioned some of the assumptions underlying Gregoire’s proposal. He said he is particularly wary, for example, of its reliance on federal dollars that may or may not materialize.

“Based on what we are hearing from Washington, D.C., it’s a 50-50 chance,” he said. “Equally, we have no idea if that money will come while we’re in session.”

The deferral of salary increases also is a concern to Anderson, who said pay raises will come back to haunt the state.

“Deferred is not cancelled,” he said. “If money is not found in 18 months, essentially what we are doing is shifting those funds, or deferring those payments, but not changing the drivers for the future. In the next state budget, we would be in exactly the same place.”

Looming in the near future is another state revenue forecast, due in late May. It will include sales tax revenues through the end of 2008, which are expected to be lower than in previous years.

“It could potentially add another billion dollars that would have to be taken out of something,” Anderson said.

When asked how to mitigate the pain of budget cuts, he was blunt.

“You can’t,” he said. “Wherever it gets hit, there is no upside.”

Anderson said he would like to see the Legislature focus on funding basic education, and then establish clear priorities and budget accordingly. In this respect, his views coincide with Rodne’s, who said he wants to protect K-12 education funding “at the expense of all others.”

Rodne (North Bend) also wants to protect higher education, which is in for a 13 percent hit if Gregoire’s proposal is adopted; plus early childhood assistance programs, the criminal justice system and public safety.

“The no-new-tax budget, freezing salaries, freezing hiring — those are all good measures,” Rodne said. “The debate is going to be all about which programs will be scrutinized, which will be cut and which will be protected.”

Pflug, of Maple Valley, said Jan. 5 that she wanted to reserve comment about the upcoming session until she had gotten a better feel for it in Olympia. However, she added that she believes the entire budget-writing process needs to be overhauled.

The existing system, she said, is largely to blame for huge deficits, because it allows the Legislature to adopt a bigger budget than the state has revenues for.

Pflug also blamed the majority Democrats for allowing this to continue.

“They are using up all their savings, and also betting that the economy would miraculously go up, so in the next cycle they wouldn’t be in a deficit,” she said. “In this last case, it was very clear it wasn’t going to continue.”

Legislative assignments

5th Legislative District

Rep. Glenn Anderson, R-Fall City:

Higher Education, ranking   minority member

Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, assistant ranking minority member

Education, assistant ranking minority member

Appropriations

Rep. Jay Rodne, R-North Bend

Judiciary, ranking minority    member

Insurance, Financial Services & Consumer Protection

Transportation

Sen. Cheryl Pflug, R-Maple Valley

Health & Long-Term Care, ranking minority member

Rules

Transportation

41st Legislative District

Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island

Transportation, chair

Rep. Marcie Maxwell, D-Renton

Community and Economic Development & Trade, vice chair

Education

Capital Budget

Sen. Fred Jarrett, D-Mercer Island

Higher Education, vice chair

Early Learning and K-12 Education

Transportation

Reach Reporter Jon Savelle at 392-6434, ext. 234, or jsavelle@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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