For weeks, the prospects for another special session in Washington state to deal with a budget crisis revolved around an acronym that became a four-letter word: FMAP.
Pronounced EFF-map, never fuh-map, it stands for federal medical assistance percentages, but was generally referred to as extra Medicaid money. It may have been the most important word in state politics last week as Washington got perilously close to a special session or across-the-board budget whacks. How that happened provides state officials with a valuable lesson in what not to do.
Congress dangled extra Medicaid money in front of the states early this year, more or less guaranteeing it would be there, and many state officials – call them trusting or gullible – essentially took those guarantees to the bank and made extra FMAP money part of their budget.
Then Democrats in Congress had so much trouble delivering on the promise that they seemed to be like an overextended consumer promising to pay sometime soon, and the states, like cash-strapped creditors, were sweating whether the check would ever be in the mail before their own bank balance went to zero. Unfortunately for the states, they can’t turn a promise from the feds over to a collection agency.
Thus the huge sigh of relief in Olympia when the Senate passed an amendment sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray to come up with $16 billion nationwide for FMAP and another $10 billion in aid to schools. Washington gets about $545 million of that, averting the need, for now, for a special session.
One has to emphasize “for now” because the state’s budget is tied to periodic economic forecasts to keep it from dropping into red ink, and those forecasts have had a pesky habit of looking worse next time than last time.
Gov. Chris Gregoire didn’t want a special session unless it could be limited to three days of votes on consensus-driven budget fixes. Which was a bit like saying we’ll have appetizers, lobster with drawn butter and french fries, baked Alaska and wine – if it fits our diet; if not, bring us a small salad with low-cal dressing on the side.
Legislative Democrats clearly did not want a special session, which would have meant cutting programs popular with someone or raising taxes popular with no one, right in the middle of campaign season. Not surprisingly, legislative Republicans were all for a special session; as the minority party they could have voted no on whatever unpopular choices Democrats made.
So Democrats were relieved when Murray’s FMAP amendment passed the Senate and were generous with their praise; some of her Republican election foes were caustic. Clint Didier, the pro football player turned Eltopia farmer turned conservative candidate, said Murray was guilty both of bringing home pork and bailing out irresponsible Democrats who run the state. Dino Rossi, the former state senator and perceived GOP front-runner who previously said extra FMAP should be paid for, said he would not have supported this plan that paid for it in part with a tax increase and “cutting needed money from our men and women in uniform.”
The tax increase that Rossi and other Republicans don’t like is called a closed loophole by Democrats. It keeps some multinational corporations from avoiding U.S. taxes. To find $26 billion to pay for FMAP and education programs, Murray’s amendment also took from other budgets, and the Defense Department trims totaled about $2 billion.
It wasn’t easy, Murray said shortly after passage, but targeted cuts were better than taking the same percentage from everyone. Strangely enough, that was why some Republicans said a special legislative session was preferable to across-the-board cuts by Gregoire, which is all state law currently allows.
But this is it, Murray said. The states should not count on extra FMAP or school funding next year to ease their budgets.
And that’s the real lesson of FMAP 2010. Almost everyone acknowledges that Washington and other states must make painful budget cuts. If the president or Congress or the tooth fairy should call next February offering piles of one-time cash, the states should hang up, turn off the phone, swallow hard and return to balancing the books without outside “help.”