Christmas is over, and Santa Claus has taken his bag of presents back to the North Pole. The season of giving has passed, and all is ready for the Washington Legislature to convene a session of taking.
That’s the way Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposed $30.5 billion state budget is being seen by many of the people, agencies and organizations who depend on state funding. From higher education to health care to social services, the response has been a common lament:
Yes, the state is in a fiscal hurt and everyone should bear part of the pain, but these cuts go too far.
Indeed, in sticking to one promise – not to raise taxes – Gregoire made another. Everyone, she vowed in the days before rolling out her 2009-11 spending plan, was going to hate it.
She was right. She even hated it herself.
But Gregoire and her budget aides have done an admirable job under trying conditions.
When the latest state revenue forecast came out in November, it added $1.9 billion of torque to the downward spiral that was already under way for state tax collections. Under current estimates, the state will collect $5.7 billion less than it needs to sustain current levels of service.
Critics note accurately that, shortfall or not, the state still will spend more in 2009-11 than in 2007-09. But that largely reflects population and caseload growth and rising healthcare and energy costs.
In fact, big portions of the budget are nondiscretionary. The state can’t renege on the debt-service costs of paying off bonds. The state Constitution requires the Legislature to pay for basic education, kindergarten through 12th grade. Federal law demands that Medicaid benefits go to those eligible.
Once all those untouchables are off the table, all the cutting to absorb the revenue shortfall must come from 40 percent of the overall budget.
As a result, Gregoire called for substantive reductions and eliminations, many of them doing stark damage to programs generally favored by Democrats such as her and the House and Senate majorities.
Gregoire has been adamant that raising taxes would aggravate the recessionary climate. And if the next revenue forecast, due in March, is still worse, the effect is the same. Taking more taxes out of citizens’ pockets discourages hiring and consumer spending that are necessary for recovery.
Lawmakers should be as resolute as Gregoire has been. Even if they can muster the two-thirds votes required under state law to raise taxes, they need to see the situation as clearly as the she does.
The first step is clear. Part of the governor’s proposal is a supplemental budget that will jump-start some of the savings in the final six months of the 2007-09 biennium. Passing that in the opening week of the 2009 session will avoid making the work that must follow even harder than it already is.