The state Legislature now in session faces one of the worse budget shortfalls in state history. How it approaches this task will affect us far into the future.
The 105-day session that began Monday brings with it the problem of dealing with a projected budget deficit of about $5.7 billion. That number is only an educated guess; look for it to be $1 billion to $2 billion higher when the March revenue forecast comes out.
Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed a budget full of things for people to hate.
K-12 education programs get cut. So does higher education. Funds for those who are unemployable (and thus survive on state support) are sliced, as are funds for other social services, prisons, health programs, state parks and pay raises. It is, in the words of Rep. Roger Goodman of the Eastside’s 41st District, “a budget for all of us to hate.”
Gregoire’s budget makes good on her promise to propose a “no new taxes” budget. However, that means spending must be severely cut. Under it, there’s hardly any chance for a program or agency to get by unscathed. It’s even likely that programs deemed not performing will be killed outright by the Legislature.
So far, most legislators are not talking about a tax increase. As Senate Democratic leader Lisa Brown says, while more taxes can’t be ruled out, “it’s not where we start.”
Yet the pressure to increase taxes to reduce the pain will be intense.
Expect teachers to push to maintain their cost of living increase and preserve the initiative to reduce class sizes. Other state workers will want pay raises, too.
Advocates for the poor already are making the argument (not without merit) that the poor can’t afford the extra burden of reduced help.
The answer may lie in how the Legislature deals with programs and agencies.
It’s likely that some state programs don’t work well enough to warrant keeping them around. It’s also likely that limits to qualify for some state programs are too generous. Those should be reduced.
The danger is that the Legislature will dump the toughest decisions – education, prisons, health – on the voters in the form of a tax package.
That would be irresponsible.
We elect our senators and representatives – and they run for the job – to make the tough calls. They have access to far more data on state finances than the rest of us.
Given the budget situation, it’s impossible not to have a budget that everyone will hate. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a budget.
Legislators face an unenviable task. But it is their task.