Washington state's patchwork budget
Last December, Gov. Chris Gregoire promised a state budget with something for everyone to hate. She got that and more. On the plus side, lawmakers put the budget together with bailing wire and duct tape — and avoided a general tax increase.
A DEMOCRATIC governor and Democratic-controlled House and Senate faced a daunting $9 billion deficit but reduced spending enough to pass a state budget without a general tax hike. That hold-the-line decision is one of the bigger accomplishments of the most challenging session in decades.
In the end, lawmakers knew constituents had no stomach for higher taxes. Nixing a planned sales-tax hike for a range of health services was the wise course considering the state's sputtering economy.
As a result, huge cuts are coming to the state's Basic Health Plan, which insures the working poor. Major layoffs are due in public schools as class sizes grow rather than shrink — painful, temporary undoing of an earlier citizens' initiative that offered no revenue for more manageable classes.
And higher education will see major tuition increases along with reduction in access of about 9,000 students — a balancing act between opening higher education's doors and the quality of the experience. Four-year schools can raise tuition 30 percent over two years but fewer students will be admitted at a time of peak demographic and economy-driven demand.
Some work on the public-schools budget is still pending in the House. But lawmakers made significant cuts in education while setting themselves up for trouble later by approving an expanded definition of basic education.
The expanded definition, including six classes a day for middle- and high-school students and all-day kindergarten, reflects the values of Washington residents. But funding broader needs will become the giant elephant in future budgets. Such expenditures are not required until 2018, providing time to find ways to pay for the new approach.
The two-year spending plan approved last weekend comes packed with red flags. The budget is thatched together with more than $4 billion in one-time spending. The state is not out of the woods by any stretch. The next biennium will have another big deficit.
Use of one-time federal stimulus money and borrowing from other state accounts, such as the capital budget, means systemic problems have not been solved. They have been punted to another day — perhaps to rosier economic times. It is foolhardy to assume the economy will improve in time to make the problems go away.
Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed to end welfare for the unemployable, but House Speaker Frank Chopp fought to retain the General Assistance Unemployable program, although it will be funded at a lower level. Some folks will be covered by the federal government.
The budget is stitched together, but still works. A good example is funding for state parks. Facing closure of numerous state parks, lawmakers decided instead to raise fees.
Motorists renewing vehicle-license tabs used to check a box to express $5 of support for parks, an opt-in approach. Now motorists have to be quicker on their feet. They must remember to un-check a box, to opt out of the fee, an adjustment that raises enough money to keep parks open. Sneaky, rude — but ultimately OK.
Lawmakers had a huge problem. The question is how did they face it? They did so-so.
In non-budget matters, lawmakers are congratulated for finally approving the deep-bore tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct and getting an important public-safety project moving. An ill-considered provision to stick Seattle property owners with overruns should be removed next year.
The Legislature also agreed to proceed with tolling on the Highway 520 bridge, progress that means construction may begin this year on pontoons supporting the new roadway.
Nothing was easy this session. Numerous deep and painful cuts were made. Services will diminish in many areas of government. The budget is unsustainable, but for now it will have to do.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.