This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Gov. Chris Gregoire – and other Democratic leaders, no doubt – are hoping her neo-Dickensian spending plan for the remainder of the biennium will make the case for a tax increase of perhaps $700 million.
They’ve still got a lot of selling to do.
The governor is right about one thing: Her new budget proposal – which adjusts state spending for another $2.6 billion in lost revenue and increased obligations – would be intolerable as written.
When this state goes into recession, governors and lawmakers tend to hunt from savings in two broad areas: higher education and human services. Neither has constitutional protection, as does basic education. Nor do the poor and sick who depend on social welfare programs have much in the way of political clout.
As expected, the no-tax budget plan (which Gregoire has already repudiated) takes a savage machete to the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
It would completely eliminate state-subsidized health insurance for the working poor, kicking tens of thousands of families off the rolls of the Basic Health Plan.
It would entirely kill General Assistance Unemployable, a program that provides survival-level monthly checks and medical coverage to many disabled people who haven’t yet qualified for federal disability payments.
Gone, too, would be money for high-quality preschool for 1,500 3-year-olds from families of low income. The poor would lose programs that prevent abuse, offer treatment for addiction, subsidize dental care and prescriptions, and provide in-home care that keeps many out of nursing homes. State-funded hospice care – which eases the path to death – would be suspended.
Students of limited means would find it much harder to afford college, their state scholarships and other assistance cut dramatically.
But what’s missing from this budget – unavoidably so, insists Gregoire – is commensurate sacrifice in state government itself. Through the end of the biennium, she projects a 5 percent total reduction of the state work force. That stings, but it’s nothing like the pain many private workers and employers have suffered in this recession.
State employees won’t be getting cost-of-living raises, but they won’t be seeing pay cuts, either. As Gregoire points out, most of their compensation is protected by union contracts. She says she asked union leaders to consider concessions that might spare jobs, but got nowhere.
Necessarily, she says, she was forced to offer a plan that inflicts holy hell on the poor but leaves the public payroll largely intact.
This does not add up to a stirring case for more taxes in the middle of a recession. Carefully targeted increases might prove necessary in the end, but lawmakers should first look hard – very hard – for a plan that bleeds the public sector a little more and the people on the margins a lot less.