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Sun., Sept. 25, 2011, 6:58 a.m.

Sunday spin: How special can a session be?

OLYMPIA – With almost all the news about Washington’s financial state hovering between dismal and abysmal over the last two weeks, it was good to catch one silver lining in the dark black revenue clouds that sit over the Capitol.
Revenue collections were up in fiscal year 2011 compared with fiscal 2010 and 2009. Not that anyone’s breaking out the champagne, or even the Bud Light, since we long ago switched to a beer budget whether our tastes continue to run to the other kind of bubbly.
A report from the state Department of Revenue late last week said Washington collected $16 billion through its various taxes and fees in the year that ended June 30....

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That’s up from $15.1 billion in 2010 and $15.6 billlion in ’09. It’s also down from the pre-recession, pre-housing-bubble-burst year of ’08, when the state pulled in $17 billion.
Before the eyes glaze over from a stream of numbers that regular people can’t understand – how many gallons of milk or loaves of bread could you buy with a billion dollars, anyway, particularly if you use your Safeway Card? – it’s important to remember that these are the kind of numbers that will occupy the Legislature between Thanksgiving and Christmas this year when they return for a special session.
It will be essentially a replay of the past several sessions, in which Democrats and Republicans will look at the same numbers and see completely different things.
Aha, the Republicans will say. State revenue is up 6 percent from last year. This is not a revenue problem, this is a spending problem. We need to economize and live within our means.
Aha, the Democrats will say. State revenue is down 6 percent from 2008. That means programs that make Washington a better place will have to be cut. We should consider looking for new sources of revenue to keep these valuable programs.
Both are correct, but without context, they aren’t really meaningful. Another figure that needs to be in the mix is something known as the “case-load forecast,” which looks at the number of people in programs that use state money: kids in public schools, students in state colleges, inmates in state prisons, and the very young, the old, the poor or the disabled who receive some measure of medical, dental or food assistance.
Those numbers come out on Nov. 16, and combined with the revenue forecast being released the next day, it’s the real indicator of how deep the doo-doo is.
After Gov. Chris Gregoire announced the special session, both parties promised to roll up their sleeves and work hard. And both slipped quickly into their budgetary equivalent of arguing whether the economic glass is half empty or half full.
Just a thought: Forget that argument, drain the glass, order another round and leave the well-worn talking points aside. The best gift the state could get would be a budget fix long before Christmas.
To paraphrase the Church Lady, wouldn't that be special?

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Jim Camden
Jim Camden joined The Spokesman-Review in 1981. He is currently the political reporter and state government reporter in the newspaper's Olympia bureau office.

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