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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

GOP fantasy can’t remove the bitterness of budget realities

There’s another budget in Olympia. I don’t mean the proposal unveiled Tuesday by House Democrats. No, this is a different one, covered with a glittery rhetorical cloak.

If you want to understand it – if you want to really see a vision of the state put forth by House Republicans – you have to peel back that cloak and check out the details. It’s worth a look, despite the conventional-wisdom chorus that this proposal doesn’t matter because the GOP is in the minority.

It does matter. Because this minority holds the reins.

Due to the supermajority requirement for new taxes, the Republicans have, in essence, forced the state into an all-cuts approach year after year. This is not new. Their central guiding principle – never, never, never raise a tax – has become, by default, the central guiding principle for us all.

So it’s enlightening to peruse the House GOP’s budget, to see how deeply this principle runs. And it’s enlightening to consider the way the budget was introduced last Friday – in a cloud of perfumed obfuscation that suggests we can get what we want for nothing.

This notion is disastrous. It’s disastrous if we overspend, as many are adept at pointing out. It’s equally disastrous if we pretend there are no consequences when all we do is cut.

The actual state budget will, in the end, not be much like the GOP proposal trotted out Friday. House Democrats brought out their proposal Tuesday. Senate Democrats will do so in the future, and since the Democrats control the Legislature, their budget will win, tax increases aside.

GOP leaders introduced their proposal last week in pleasant, inoffensive terms: It would raise school spending beyond the governor’s budget; it would increase spending for “the most vulnerable”; it would raise public safety spending.

Isn’t that nice? More for us, no cost to me? It’s magic.

Only there’s no such thing as magic. There are only illusions – such as the Democratic accounting trick of pushing some payments ahead into the next budget year. GOP critics make much of this – too much, given that their own sleight of hand is more brazen and worse for people in the long run.

Example: House GOP budgeters tell us they would increase spending for the “most vulnerable” over the governor’s proposal. Walla Walla Republican Maureen Walsh said, “Caring for the most vulnerable is our responsibility as a state, but it’s also the right thing to do.”

Hooray for the right thing to do. Except … there’s this matter of the Basic Health plan. Basic Health provides low-cost health care coverage to people who are, perhaps, not quite the absolutely most vulnerable. They’re just somewhat vulnerable – up to twice the poverty level. Under this budget, the plan would go away completely. As would program after program in health care and human services. Welfare grants to the poor would be reduced and shortened in duration. Not to mention unspecified cuts of 5 percent to 10 percent per agency.

These cuts are unmentioned or very well hidden in the news releases.

One of the big money-savers in this fantasy amounts to a 9 percent pay cut – give or take – for every state worker, not counting the “critical” ones. This is presented as 24 furlough days – an unpaid month off – for state workers. It’s hard to understand how, say, a modest capital gains tax would be horrible for the economy, but slashing the income of 100,000 workers will be OK. Not to mention the loss of services. Not to mention the difficulties that could arise in collective bargaining.

But that’s the great thing about a fantasy. It doesn’t have to adhere to the physics of the real world. You can just talk about it come election time.

This ignoring of the consequences is the opposite of what those of us on the other side of the debate tend to do: Emphasize the potential pain of cuts. Always see the sky as falling. It’s very easy to do this lately, unfortunately.

We will doubtlessly cut more. Gregoire’s proposal would put a half-cent sales tax increase before voters in November, with the idea that some cuts could be restored if it passed. The GOP calls this holding the budget hostage.

I like to think of it more as holding us to account as voters. Confronting us with the reality of the moment and making us decide if we’re still on Team Eyman.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown said the need for a sales-tax increase has been softened by improved revenue forecasts, but long-term problems persist with the budget. She also noted that not all tax opposition is created equal.

“People don’t like to give money from their pocketbooks to the government – something called ‘government,’ ” she said. “But when they understand specifically where it’s going, they make good decisions.”

Brown and Senate Democrats are expected to release their budget proposal next week. It’s unclear whether a bipartisan budget can emerge in that chamber or whether Democrats will have to muster all the votes. The sausage-grinding is just beginning.

However it goes, though, we have to look straight at this situation. Without magical thinking or fuzzy misrepresentations. The budget debate is discouraging once again – a horse race between limping old nags. The choices will be awful, and the results will affect actual people.

The least we can do is not pretend otherwise.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.