Your Representatives in Action!
March 27, 2002

Maria Tomchick


When the state legislature adjourned two weeks ago, politicians from both sides of the aisle breathed a sigh of relief and scurried out of Olympia to begin work on their re-election campaigns. They were only too happy to wash from their hands any gruesome traces of the bad budget bills passed this session.

The onset of the recession and Tim Eyman's dreaded property-tax-limit initiative blew a $1.6 billion hole in the second year of the state's current two-year budget. The legislature's solution, however, is no solution at all.

Two measures are meant to raise new revenue: a risky "securitization" scheme to sell future tobacco lawsuit funds in the form of bonds (which means we'll only end up with, at maximum, 70 cents on the dollar) and an equally risky move to join the Big Game multi-state lottery. Does gambling increase during a recession or does it fall? You guess.

A third measure drew $325 million from the state's emergency reserves. But this still left a $716 million hole in the budget. The legislature filled it with budget cuts, primarily to education and social services.

Gov. Locke began his current term with a vow to become "The Education Governor," yet it took two citizens' initiatives, passed last fall, to set aside funds for reducing class sizes and increasing teachers' pay. Those initiatives have been undermined by the legislature's budget "fix."

$98.6 million will be cut from public schools, $6 million of this from the Seattle School District alone. Programs that will lose out include: school safety, block grants, reading and math assistance programs, school nursing staff, class-size reduction funds, and teacher training funds. Teachers will lose one planning day a year and be forced to pay more for their health insurance--back-door moves that largely nullify the pay increase that voters approved last November. In addition, the state has changed several formulas for allocating funds to various school districts; this will save the state money, while shifting more of the financial burden for basic school operations onto local school districts and taxpayers.

Higher education took its share of cuts, too. Operating funds to community colleges, which serve a more impoverished and diverse student body, were slashed by 3%, which will mean a 12% tuition increase for students who can least afford it. Four-year universities were cut by 5%, including $23 million from the University of Washington's budget. The UW has announced plans to hike tuition by 16%, but that will only fill $10 million of the hole. The rest will come from cuts in health care, pension benefits, and cost-of-living increases for UW employees.

Obviously Locke and the legislature have forgotten that, when Boeing execs announced their move to Chicago, they cited the lagging quality of education in Washington schools as a reason.

Social service advocates had braced themselves for deep cuts and were relieved when the legislature didn't slash as much from the budget as Gov. Locke had originally proposed in his draft budget. But the cuts are still painful, particularly for the disabled.

The state is eliminating Supplemental Security Income payments to folks who receive federal disability payments. State SSI amounts to anywhere from $5 to $25 per month for disabled folks, but every tiny bit helps when you already stand in line at the food bank (behind an increasing number of newly unemployed people) and can't afford high rents. Even worse, the General Assistance to Unemployable fund was cut by $5.4 million. This money provides an average of $339 per month to people so severely disabled that they will never be able to work--arguably the most vulnerable population in the state.

Another vulnerable population--children--also lost ground. The Early Childhood Education Program (ECAP) was cut by $838,000, Head Start lost $235,000, the Women Infants & Children (WIC) health and nutrition program lost $423,000, and over 25,000 undocumented immigrant children were thrown off state Medicaid rolls. They will qualify for the state's Basic Health Plan, but there's already a long waiting list of folks who want to get on the BHP. And once there, these children won't get free health care; their parents will have to pay a portion or all of the premium, and they won't have access to interpreter services. In short, these children--whose parents literally provide the food that goes onto our tables--have lost access to health care.

Nearly as heartbreaking is the $24 million cut in Medicaid reimbursements to pharmacies. Medicaid patients will be turned away from many pharmacies and often find it impossible to get prescriptions filled. At the same time, the legislature allowed a promising prescription drug bill to die in committee in the State House. House Democrats showed their love for the state's biotech industry at the direct expense of the poor and elderly. Let Grandma die; Immunex shareholders must have their guaranteed rate of return!

Speaking of Grandma, the state also cut $2.8 million from Medicaid reimbursements to nursing homes, which will guarantee more substandard conditions in these establishments.

In a year in which the lack of foster families was cited as a major problem in this state, the legislature passed several bills (none of them requiring extra funding) to recruit and provide some services for foster parents; however, it also froze monthly payments to foster families.

This is not the only case where the legislature gave with one hand and took away with the other. It passed a wonderful and long-overdue drug reform sentencing law that called for increased treatment for non-violent drug offenders. But the budget bill cut $4 million in drug abuse support programs. Senseless.

Equally senseless is the cut in job placement services for folks recently kicked off Welfare.

The remaining cuts involve: a state hiring freeze and 900 lay-offs, the loss of cost-of-living increases for state workers, higher health co-payments for state employees, and the loss of funds to county and city governments that suffered severe cuts in the wake of I-695. The state stepped in temporarily to prop up local governments when car tab taxes disappeared, but now those governments--particularly in rural areas where unemployment runs close to 20%--will have to fend for themselves.

As if this weren't bad enough, the legislature adjourned without voting on a bill to slightly increase liquor taxes; this left Gary Locke with the decision on how to fill the last $31 million hole left in the budget. Locke has said he won't draw further on the state's reserves; instead, he'll make further cuts. In typical Gov. Jellyfish fashion, however, he hasn't announced yet what those cuts will be. He's stalling, hoping that the economists' happy talk is really true, and the recession will soon be over. If only those sales taxes would rise again, then he wouldn't have to do anything (his favorite modus operandi).

Without addressing our screwed-up tax structure and plugging some of the tax loopholes for big businesses, the legislature will return to the same problem next year, when they're likely to face a $1 billion budget shortfall. Unfortunately, we don't have either a governor or Democratic Party (forget the Republicans) with the guts to do what's necessary.