OLYMPIA – With almost all the news about Washington’s financial state hovering between dismal and abysmal over the past two weeks, it was good to catch one silver lining in the dark 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.
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. That’s up from $15.1 billion in 2010 and $15.6 billion 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 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 “caseload 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 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.
Awaiting a decision
State Sen. Mike Baumgartner is weighing a run for the other Senate, the one in Washington, D.C.
The Spokane Republican said he’ll make up his mind in the next few weeks about whether he’ll wage a campaign against Democrat Maria Cantwell, who’ll be seeking her third term. The GOP field isn’t exactly teeming with contenders these days, and Baumgartner has a good résumé that includes State Department experience in Iraq and Afghanistan and being named one of Spokane’s sexiest people by the local weekly.
It would be a big jump, a race several orders of magnitude higher on the political Richter scale from his successful legislative race in 2010. And it’s a tough race for any East Sider, considering someone from this side of the Cascades hasn’t been elected to the U.S. Senate since Babe Ruth was hitting homers for the Yankees.
There’s every likelihood Democrats would try to make him eat his words from the 2010 campaign, when he sharply disputed a suggestion by opponent Chris Marr that he was running for the Legislature as a stepping stone to higher office.
“It’s quite a compliment, but I am afraid Chris is just projecting his own desires, not mine,” he said in a press release that was still available last week on the Spokane County GOP website.