A Half-Axed Budget
January 30, 2002

Maria Tomchick


Last issue I listed some of the issues that the Seattle City Council and the King County Council will be tackling this year. Now it's time to look at the State Legislature in Olympia.

This is an election year, so the session will be short, but the list of bills long. The Democrats have a 50-48 majority in the House and a 25-24 majority in the Senate, so they could push through the bills they want to pass. But they've been working hard at bipartisanship--at least in the Senate. The House, on the other hand, is deeply divided, particularly over the budget.

The Budget. There's a $1.25 billion hole in the state budget primarily because of the economic recession and Tim Eyman's I-747, which limited property tax increases to 1% per year (less than the inflation rate). The state can't run a deficit; it's required to balance the budget, and that means either increased taxes or deep spending cuts. Democrats prefer the former, while Republicans prefer the latter--with a few interesting exceptions.

Some Democrats and social service advocates have pointed out that if the legislature eliminates some of the 445 tax breaks the state has generously doled out to businesses over the years, the $1.25 billion hole would disappear. The State Department of Revenue says that tax breaks cost the state $8 billion out of the current two-year budget, with new tax breaks for businesses enacted since 1994 stripping away $3.3 billion in revenues.

Some of those tax credits and "incentives" include: an exemption on sales tax for airplanes (Boeing); a sales tax exemption on new equipment purchases by manufacturers; a leasehold tax exemption for the Seahawks' new football stadium; fuel tax exemptions for loggers, land developers, boat owners, and commercial airlines; and a number of tax breaks for the high-tech industry, including a research-and-development tax credit. Two separate studies by the Department of Revenue show that these tax breaks have little to do with businesses creating new jobs. They're just pork-barrel, and business lobbyists are gearing up to fight against their repeal. Call your legislator.

As a typical Republican-in-Democrats'-clothing, Gov. Gary Locke has proposed cutting social services to balance the budget. That includes cutting the following: $70 million in payments to nursing homes, $2.6 million in assisted living care, $1 million in HIV/AIDS prevention and care services, $2.1 million from the Early Childhood Education Assistance Program, $470,220 from the Head Start Program, $1.9 million from emergency shelter assistance programs, $120,000 from five youth shelters, $656,000 from the Emergency Food Assistance Program, $263,000 from the Farmer's Market Nutrition Program for low-income women and children, $423,000 from the Women Infants and Children's health and nutrition program, $750,000 from the Juvenile Violence Prevention Grant, and $4.6 million from the drastically underfunded Regional Support Networks that service the mentally ill.

If that's not bad enough, Locke would eliminate the following: the State Library, the State Film Office, $7 million in wage increases for long-term caregivers, the Alternative Response Services program for youth, the Public Health Nurse Program, the Continuum of Care Program for at-risk families, Family Reconciliation Services, the federally-mandated Medical Interpreter Services program (which serves 10,000 people each week in King County alone), the Community Health & Safety Networks (which prevent youth violence, teen pregnancy, and child abuse), the TASC program (which reduces drug abuse), and most drastically, state Social Security Income payments to disabled folks on federal disability.

And Locke wants to eliminate 835 jobs and place a hiring freeze on desperately needed case managers for the developmentally disabled. In addition, Locke's budget ignores a $36 million shortfall in funds to provide child care and other services for people moving off welfare and into the workforce.

Locke's budget proposal actually makes Republicans look compassionate.

Much ink and time has been wasted arguing about how to raise revenue without angering voters. It seems everyone has forgotten how to add two and two together to make four. Obviously, if the legislature hadn't given such enormous tax breaks to businesses while simultaneously jacking up real estate taxes, sales taxes, and fees, voters wouldn't have passed I-695 and I-747.

Now, I'm sick of pundits arguing about whether a flat $30 vehicle license fee is more progressive than a fee based on the value of the vehicle. This is not the issue. If we want a progressive tax--one based on a person's ability to pay--then we have to have a state income tax. Don't hold your breath.

Transportation. This is the do-or-die issue of the year. But the legislature is caught between a rock and hard place. To pass a bill, they have to raise taxes to pay for it, but if they raise taxes, voters might punish them at the polls. But in December Gov. Locke stunned the Democrats by proposing virtually the same bill that failed in the legislature last year: a $8 billion package funded by a nine cent gas tax phased in over three years.

So far, the legislature has assiduously avoided the transportation funding package and has concentrated instead on smaller "efficiency" bills, including a Republican push to allow outside contractors and non-union labor to work on road projects and a bill to allow the Puget Sound region to raise taxes locally to be spent on projects in the region. But even these issues are contentious: labor and most Democrats won't go for the outside contractors, and Republicans from rural districts are worried that the Puget Sound region will hog all the transportation money to itself.

The legislature has 60 days to resolve these conflicts and hammer out a transportation plan. If they don't, Gov. Locke will drag them back to Olympia for a special session, during which they can't raise funds for their election campaigns.

Anti-Terror Law. States all over the country are crafting their own, redundant laws in the wake of September 11 to keep up with the federal government's trashing of the Bill of Rights. Under Gov. Locke's proposed anti-terror law, nonviolent protesters could be charged as "terrorists" (first- or second-degree!). In addition, the law would restrict access to public records, making it harder to get information on government expenditures. It's unnecessary and deeply anti-democratic. Call your legislator.

Other issues. The legislature may consider bills on the following issues: lowering sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, changing sentencing guidelines, lowering the cost of prescription drugs, preventing harassment and bullying in schools, providing funds for low-income housing, allowing collective bargaining at four-year colleges (go UW grad students!), and incentives to develop renewable energy resources.

Business interests have their own agenda in Olympia: overturn or delay the new ergonomics rules, hamstring the Department of Ecology, cut unemployment taxes, gut environmental regulations (including the new shoreline rules), "reform" business and occupation taxes, move the burden of paying for health care coverage onto employees, impose a hiring freeze for state employees, and privatize state services.

Olympia is not Washington DC. There are paid lobbyists in Olympia, but ordinary folks can still get access to their state legislators. Call them, write them, and visit them. Otherwise, they'll think Tim Eyman speaks for you.


Resources: To contact Gov. Locke visit http://www.governor.wa.gov or call 360-902-4111. To find your legislative representative, visit http://www.leg.wa.gov and click on "Find Out Who Represents You" or call the Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000 (TDD 1-800-635-9993). The governor's proposed budget is at http://www.ofm.wa.gov. For info on bills and the legislative schedule, go to http://www.leg.wa.gov and click on "Legislative Info" or call the Legislative Information Center at 360-786-7573.