When times were good, or seemed good, the Republican budget hawks in Olympia had a hard time getting heard. Now – with the Legislature coping with one multi-billion-dollar shortfall after another – the GOP mantra of budget sustainability sounds increasingly compelling.
Four Republican leaders were in today: Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt; Sen. Joseph Zarelli, ranking minority member of the Ways and Means Committee; Rep. Gary Alexander, ranking minority of the House Ways and Means Committee; Doug Ericksen, ranking member of the House Health Care Committee.
The party’s position going into the legislative session is “no new taxes and don’t deficit-spend,” said Ericksen. (Somehow that sounds familiar.) I tried to tease some hint of a tax increase they might support in the last extreme – on candy? soft drinks? – but they weren’t conceding a penny.
After barely patching a $9 billion deficit last session, the Legislature already finds itself short another $2.6 billion through the end of the biennium. Gov. Chris Gregoire has grudgingly offered the no-new-taxes budget required by law. It would devastate human services; she believes new taxes on the order of $700 million are needed for a humane spending plan. Other Democrats would like a lot more.
The Republicans, in contrast, are digging in their heels and pushing for fundamental structural changes that would permanently reduce the cost of government. Many are privatization schemes anathema to Democrats and the state workers’ unions: They’d divest state government of liquor sales, management of the ferry system (not the ferries themselves) and the state’s vehicle fleet, among other things.
Ericksen said he’d turn the Basic Health Plan – a government-run program – into a voucher system and tightly screen its recipients for income and legal status. He estimates that at least 19 percent of the people on the rolls aren’t eligible.
Alexander argued for letting private clinics and other organizations do more of what the Department of Social and Health Services does now; the department would handle case management but refer many clients to private providers. He agreed with the Democrats on a few points: restoring levy equalization and at least some health care subsidies for the poor.
Then there’s the part that really aggravates Gregoire and other Democrats: Squeezing more savings out of the state payroll, including a rollback of the pay increases many state employees continue to receive under the contract they negotiated with Gregoire.
“The collective bargaining statute is clear,” said Zarelli. “The governor through executive order or the Legislature through resolution can declare a ‘significant revenue shortfall’ and order the parties back to the bargaining table.”
“We can bargain then reasonably, based on what we know is our revenue situation.”
The group argued that Gregoire and the Legislature’s Democratic majorities have been far too protective of the public sector payrolls during hard times.
Zarelli said an apple-to-apple comparison of state employment (not including temporary or higher education jobs) shows the state adding 300 jobs between February 2008 and the end of last November.
Over the same months, he said, 185,000 private jobs have been lost across the state.
“The budget’s down a third, yet we have more employees than we did then,” he said.
The Republicans accuse the Democrats of resorting to a series of stopgaps without confronting the fundamentals of a long-running structural deficit. Zarelli noted that last year’s budget relied on a federal bailout and one-time raids on various state funds. This year, he said, “You could raise a billion dollars this year, get money from federal government, and guess what? You’d still have a three billion to three-and-a-half billion problem next year.”
The Democrats have long argued against the radical downsizing lawmakers like Zarelli have been advocating. But the fiscal crisis and the dynamics of this election year will throw them on the defensive. Confronted in Olympia with billion-dollar problems and a pack of small-government Republicans in full cry, they’ll have to be a lot more persuasive than usual.