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State budget: Good, bad, unconscionable

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on April 25, 2009 at 7:50 pm |
April 25, 2009 7:50 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The 2009 Legislature was dealt one of the worst hands in state history: a recession-driven $9 billion hit to projected revenues.

The Democrats who control both House and Senate had to pass a balanced budget under these dire circumstances. To their credit, they did it without punting tough decisions to the voters through a November tax measure.

Republicans are complaining that the operating budget isn’t sustainable, that it’s propped up by billions of dollars worth of federal stimulus funds, deferred pension contributions and raids on state accounts – one-time money that won’t be around next biennium.

All true. But that’s what you do when your back is to the wall. Keeping all those billions in the bank would have turned Washington into a humanitarian and educational disaster zone. If the state is still in the depths of this recession come 2011, we’ll find out what hard times are really like.

As it is, lawmakers went to some length to preserve the state’s educational system. Public education will get 2.6 percent less money statewide, but local school districts will be able to ask their voters for higher levies. Yes, that hurts, and thousands of teachers and other school employees stand to lose their jobs. But kids will still have decent schools to go to, and the Legislature even preserved funding for lower class sizes in the early grades.

That’s more than many would-be college students will get. Cuts to higher education will eliminate seats for about 9,000 applicants who would otherwise have been able to pursue degrees. That hurts. Still, the Legislature did give public colleges the latitude to raise tuition enough to avoid devastation. It actually increased financial aid to students of limited means. Higher education probably couldn’t have come out much better in a year like this.

Same with one of the most vulnerable targets in the budget, General Assistance-Unemployable. This is welfare for people – many mentally ill, some alcohol or drug abusers – who don’t qualify for other programs. Cutting off their $339 a month checks and medical benefits is always tempting in fiscal crises, but that would simply shift costs to local hospitals, jails and mental health centers. Lawmakers wisely spared the program.

There are many truly painful cuts in this budget, but most can be defended as necessary evils. That’s not true of the decision to eliminate medical insurance for 40,000 of the working poor who would otherwise qualify for the state’s subsidized Basic Health Plan.

Lawmakers could have saved that health coverage, or most of it, by requiring state employees to pay a larger share of their own health insurance; right now, those employees pay far less than their counterparts in private industry.

At one point, Republicans proposed a 2 percent cut to the state’s subsidy of its employees’ health plans. Sen. Cheryl Pflug proposed using the resulting savings to save 24,000 slots in the Basic Health Plan. Democrats rejected the proposal.

The result: Poor Washingtonians with no medical insurance were sacrificed to maintain generous coverage for people in state jobs. The Democrats made reasonable tradeoffs elsewhere in the budget, but that one’s awfully hard to defend.

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