Olympia's Child Sacrifice
May 7, 2003

Maria Tomchick

The state legislature adjourned in Olympia last week with a big piece of unfinished business still in the works: the state budget. The legislature reconvenes May 12 to work on a budget compromise. It'll be tough going, and nobody's looking forward to it.

When Gov. Gary Locke set out to draft a budget proposal last year, he asked all of his department heads to undertake a comprehensive review of each element of the budget, assigning a rank of importance to each spending item. >From these lists, Locke drafted a budget that relied entirely on spending cuts to fill an estimated $2.6 billion deficit. In short, he focused only on one side of the balance sheet (expenses) and entirely ignored the other side (taxes, fees, grants, and other sources of income for the state), even refusing to consider options to restructure the state's tax system, as recommended by his own blue ribbon task force.

In addition, Locke somehow forgot to propose eliminating any of the state's 431 tax exemptions that total about $46 billion per year. The most idiotic of these exemptions is the lack of a tax on airplane fuel--a tax levied by most other states in the union. This has always been a direct giveaway for Boeing; with Boeing's gone, we should consider asking airlines and Boeing's remnants to pay their fair share.

Locke, our Republican governor in disguise, won high praise from Republicans in the state legislature and howls of protest from his own party. The Republican majority in the state Senate quickly passed a budget that looked almost identical to Locke's slash-and-burn, balance-on-the-backs-of-the-poor proposal. The Democrats and their slim majority in the House have been playing catch-up ever since.

By session's end, Democrats had a proposal that restored some of Locke's enormous cuts by proposing a two-tenths of a penny increase in the state sales tax, an increase in sin taxes on booze and cigarettes, extending the sales tax to candy and gum, and increasing gambling revenues. House Republicans fought it tooth and nail, and Senate Republicans have vowed to wipe out any proposals for new taxes when the two budget bills are reconciled in conference committee. A bloody fight is in store when the special session reconvenes in mid-May, and Democrats are likely to lose.

So what's on the line? Here's what "compassionate conservatives," wimpy Dems, and Gov. Jellyfish have slashed from the state budget:

* Low-paid state employees who bargained hard for cost-of-living increases will see salaries frozen. Likewise, teacher raises mandated by voter-passed initiatives may be axed in conference committee. Much of the money for class-size reductions is also on the line.

* A total of $60 million will be cut from programs that serve low income and at-risk children. Yes, that's children being sacrificed so high tech businesses can continue to enjoy tax exemptions for research and development expenses. When we put Microsoft and Amazon.com before our kids, you know something's wrong.

* Children's health care is also being slashed. The Child Health Insurance Program is likely to be eliminated. Cuts in Medicaid will dump between 40,000 and 63,000 low-income kids off the rolls, depending on how the two budget bills are reconciled. Add to that deep cuts in foster family and adoption services, and the picture is clear: children come last in this state.

* Other social and health services are hit almost as badly. Tens of thousands of low-income people will be pushed off the state's Basic Health Plan. In addition, Gov. Locke's budget proposal and the Senate Republican bill that flowed out of it both make an astounding assumption that could mean the death of the BHP. They both assume that health care costs will increase only by single digits, when such costs have grown by double digits every year for a decade. This assumption, written into law in the next budget, will mean that the legislature will be forced to revisit state health care costs again and again in the coming years, likely forcing the state to dump the plan altogether. This, in turn, will throw hundreds of thousands of people into the growing pool of uninsured, and force hospital emergency rooms to treat more and more critical-care patients who can't pay--a process that makes healthcare costs more expensive for everyone.

* Perhaps the most sickening of all the cuts in the Locke/Senate plan is the elimination of subsistence payments for 10,000 unemployable disabled and/or mentally ill people. These small payments--usually around $300 to $400 per month--help people who can live on their own in the community, but are too disabled to hold down a job and who don't qualify for federal assistance. They keep people who'd otherwise fall through the cracks fed and housed (barely). In eliminating these payments, the state would move closer to the status of many Third World nations, where disabled folks are forced to live on the streets.

As if acknowledging this grim future, the legislature passed a bill that requires police officer training in how to interact with developmentally disabled people and those who've been diagnosed with a mental illness. Cops will be taught how to recognize, communicate with, and deescalate conflicts with disabled and mentally ill folks. Of course, with mental health services suffering $20 million in cuts, cops won't be able to actually do anything helpful for these folks. But, hey, we have to support our troops, right?

If we learn nothing else from this budget fiasco, it should be this: Gary Locke must go. In the interim, we need to push hard for revisions in the state's revenue sources. That should include working toward a state income tax, a decrease and/or repeal of sales taxes, a decrease in property taxes, and a serious look at tax exemptions for special business interests. These are not radical notions--they are, in fact, what Gov. Locke's own blue ribbon commission recommended.