Budget action: Less than three weeks to go and plenty to worry about

If lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire are going to reach a budget agreement that lets the legislative session end on time, the House Democrats' budget is a key step.

If lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire are going to reach a budget agreement that lets the legislative session end on time, the House Democrats' budget is a key step.

This year particularly, Washington's budget choices are many and difficult. The proposals presented by the House Democrats on Monday (April 4) have won considerable praise from those most inclined to worry that the party would be overly liberal with money, along with some intense expressions of concern by liberals that health, education, and services for the elderly and disabled will take excessive hits.

The legislature is supposed to finish its session April 24, meaning that budget decisions will have to come quickly. Politically, finishing on time might be especially important this year: What legislators would want to be accused of running up unnecessary costs for themselves when the budget situation is so grim? 

The budget won quick editorial endorsements Tuesday (April 5) from two major newspapers, The Seattle Times and The Herald in Everett. The papers' editorial boards both liked the plan presented by Democratic state Rep. Ross Hunter, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. 

The Times wrote that the editorial board might "argue with [the House plan] in a few respects, just as we did with Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed budget. But, like hers, it meets a couple of our most important tests." The editorial liked the House's balancing of the budget (particularly without any major gimmicks), and the decision to stay on top of the state's share of employee pension contributions. The editorial also made an attempt to show understanding for the pain caused by budget-cutting:

The result is no fun for a lot of people in Washington: Enrollment would be frozen in the Basic Health Plan and all illegal immigrants ejected; annual increases in the PERS-1 and TERS-1 pension plans ended; cash grants in the Disability Lifeline program ended (and partly converted to housing subsidies); teacher raises, including "steps" up the salary schedule, suspended; the presidential primary election gone; state tourism promotion gone, and so on.

The Herald called the Democrats' plan generally "serious, responsible and — with one possibly large exception — free of hasty decisions." That caveat is about a section envisioning the leasing of state liquor store operations for $300 million. While The Times also disliked that idea, The Herald was more detailed in its concerns: 

We're all for getting the state out of liquor sales and distribution, but this idea hasn't been through any sort of public vetting process. When it comes to dismantling the state's lucrative liquor monopoly, thoughtful decision making mustn't fall victim to the temptation of quick money. One obvious question: Is $300 million the right place to start the bidding? How does anyone know? This is a long-term decision that needs to be treated with due diligence.

A look at the websites of some think tanks and advocacy groups shows that the more conservative Washington Policy Center has a reasonably positive reaction to the House plan. And two more progressive groups, the League of Education Voters and the Washington State Budget & Policy Center, had big problems with the Democratic refusal to entertain better protection of a variety of programs through the ending of tax exemptions and breaks or through revenue or fee increases (except for the double-digit ones planned for tuition-paying college students).

At the Washington Policy Center, Jason Mercier posted a quick analysis, saying, "The ending fund balance, and the balance sheet as a whole, is cause for optimism." Mercier also noted that there were no "felony gimmicks" (a phrase used by state Treasurer Jim McIntire to warn against creative accounting), but suggested there had been some misdemeanors. He held out hope House Republicans or the Senate would draft a tighter plan. 

The Washington State Budget & Policy Center sharply criticized the Democrats' plan, complaining about the results of ignoring potential revenue improvements that could be gained by ending "the bevy" of existing tax breaks:

The cuts, which total more than $4.4 billion, target essential public services and programs. While these cuts would balance the 2011-2013 budget, they are short-sighted and will end up costing our state more in the long-run. 

While noting some health improvements over Gregoire's plan, particularly on the Basic Health Plan, The Budget & Policy Center said the "House makes deep cuts to services for children and young adults, people with disabilities and older adults."

At the League of Education Voters, Chief Executive Officer Chris Korsmo wrote about the disconnect between the budget and the state's talk of educational and economic opportunity: 

Even as we are pushing to prepare more kids for college — which, by the way, hasn’t exactly been a trip through paradise — the state is slashing its support for the university and college systems. By our count the cuts to higher ed are in the 17 percent range, if you average both the university system and community and technical colleges. But the university system was hit hard – disproportionately so (23 percent – 28 percent) and the offshoot of that will be higher tuition. Additional cuts to specifics of the K-12 program will make it more difficult for kids to be prepared for college.

The House Republicans are expected to introduce their plan in committee Wednesday (April 6). A final House vote on a budget could come by the end of the week, paving the way for a Senate budget to be released next week.


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