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Calamitous budgets for calamitous times

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on March 31, 2009 at 8:37 pm with No Comments »
March 31, 2009 8:37 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The state House and Senate propose to wreak havoc on essential services and public education. They didn’t have much choice.

You can quibble with line items here and there, but the broad categories of state spending – education, public safety, human services, environmental protection – are essential.

There’s just no way to rip billions of dollars out of those essentials without hurting countless Washingtonians.

That’s what the Senate and House of Representatives had to propose this week when they released the most brutal state budgets in memory. Even with $3 billion in federal stimulus money, the deep recession has forced Olympia’s budget writers to cut muscle and even bone from critical state programs.

This was never going to be pretty. Look at any part of either budget, and you find urgent priorities being sacrificed.

The Senate is more generous to higher education than the House. But even it would cut the system’s funding by a net $500 million. Enrollment would be reduced by 10,000 – precisely when newly unemployed workers are pressing for admission. An estimated 2,500 jobs would go.

In the public schools, efforts to reduce class size reduction are abandoned; teachers will lose pay increases; poor school districts will lose much of their levy equalization relief, and thousands will be laid off. State workers also face layoffs, pay cuts, and – along with teachers – higher health care expenses.

There are no glimmers of light in these dismal budgets. Health insurance subsidies for poor working families are slashed. Supervision of sex offenders is reduced. Funding for vaccinations and mental health is cut.

State pension obligations are left festering.

Even so, these budgets are balanced only with the stimulus money and massive raids on construction funds and other separate accounts. The one-time-only fixes exceed $4 billion. That’s a huge bet – necessary in this crisis – that the economy will be recovering by the next biennium. The chief hedge against further calamity is a relatively healthy $850 million reserve fund. Wisely, lawmakers made no assumptions that Washingtonians would approve new taxes in November.

We would like to see some of those cuts to higher education restored. In the K-12 system, a first-grader may wind up in a larger class, but he or she is guaranteed a place in school. Would-be public college students have no such guarantee. Shutting more than 10,000 of them out of higher education will hurt the state’s economy as much as it hurts their futures.

There are many other false economies in these spending plans. Cuts to mental health and health coverage for the poor, for example, only shift costs to the public in other ways – such as shunting the uninsured to emergency rooms where the high price of their treatment is covertly shifted to people with private insurance.

While we disagree with some of their decisions, we can’t blame the budget writers who were forced to distribute billions of dollars worth of pain across the state. No Legislature, probably, has been dealt a worse hand since the Great Depression. Let’s hope the 2010 Legislature isn’t dealt a worse hand yet.

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