Basic education, social safety net, and reform are priorities
OLYMPIA – A state spending plan that’s balanced, supports basic education, maintains the social safety net and keeps higher education affordable, all without increasing taxes – that’s the essence of the retooled 2011-13 budget proposal announced Tuesday by the House Democratic budget writers.
“The huge drop-off in revenues since the Legislature adopted its original budget for 2011-13 last spring created major challenges,” Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said. “We believe we have achieved a workable solution that doesn’t wound our state long-term. We hope that the recent good news about the state’s economy means we’ve turned the corner on the Great Recession, and that our next budget can fairly serve the state’s growing population.”
As chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, Hunter is the lead budget writer in the House. The committee will hear his proposal (House Bill 2127) Tuesday. Committee approval will send the spending plan to the full House. Ultimately, any budget revision must be ratified by both the House and the Senate and signed by the governor.
“No one will be turning handsprings over this budget,” committee vice-chair Rep. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, said. “We’ve been cutting for four years now, and it gets more and more difficult. But we’ve accepted the challenge of managing the state’s diminishing resources responsibly.”
The Legislature made a “down payment” on closing the budget gap in the November-December special session, when it saved nearly half a billion dollars on the balance sheet by tightening accounting and reclaiming unspent money from state agencies. Since then, two major developments have affected the budget process:
- A state Supreme Court ruling in January that reaffirmed the state’s “paramount duty” to finance basic K-12 education – and that also directed the Legislature to increase state K-12 spending over the next few years to fulfill that obligation.
- Updates in February to official revenue and spending projections, which included the first uptick in a revenue forecast in four years and also predicted a decline in welfare cases and school enrollment compared to earlier estimates. Together, that meant more than $400 million on the upside.
“The good economic news this month enabled us to steer clear of deep cuts in public education and limit impacts on social services and higher ed while staying within our current means,” House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, said. “I don’t want to say the economy has turned the corner, but it is good news in the short-term.”
Although state revenues have plunged drastically since 2007, they actually have been declining steadily over the past 20 years relative to the state’s population and to residents’ income – which means fundamental structural reform is both necessary and possible. The House Democrats’ budget plan takes the first steps toward reform:
- It gives cities and counties more authority to make their own decisions about what they want to spend money on. Those local governments gain increased authority to tax general sales, restaurants and utilities, allowing them to replace state aid that’s being reduced as a consequence of the budget crunch.
- It makes changes in the way the state helps out those local school districts that must set property tax levy rates high to raise money because property values in the district are low compared to statewide averages; 80 percent of the state’s 295 districts are eligible for this support. The budget proposal adjusts the funding formulas downward, but does not eliminate the assistance. It also defers two months’ payments into the next budget cycle. This approach sets up the Legislature to tackle meaningful reform of the system – both to finance schools adequately and to comply with court guidelines on how to do that – in the 2012 regular session.
The proposal does make cuts in social services, but importantly, it keeps alive programs such as the Basic Health Plan and Disability Lifeline to sustain the cooperative relationship with the federal government until 2014, when the Affordable Care Act is expanded.
Ross Hunter 360-786-7936
Jeannie Darneille 360-786-7974
Pat Sullivan 360-786-7858
Melinda McCrady 360-786-7385
Greg Roberts 360-786-7631
Click here for a copy of Rep. Hunter’s 2012 Supplemental budget proposal presentation.