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GUEST COLUMN: State’s budget gap was built on pie-in-the-sky projections
On Nov. 28, Gov. Chris Gregoire called all lawmakers into special session because of a $2 billion spending gap due to an unsustainable budget passed last May. Since arriving in Olympia two weeks ago, the only thing we managed to do is pass a bailout bill for a Wenatchee arena.
As lawmakers, it is our constitutional duty to balance our state’s budget. Fixing this mess in a swift and efficient manner by setting priorities is the job taxpayers of Washington expect us to do.
Before I discuss some of the reasons this attitude exists in Olympia, it is worth noting, coincidentally, the 2011-13 budget spends $2 billion, or 6.9 percent, more than the 2009-11 budget. The reason for the $2 billion spending gap is budget writers last May anticipated a nearly 14 percent increase in tax collections.
These were pie-in-the-sky projections that didn’t pan out. So here we are back in the same predicament we were in just one year ago – spending more than the previous budget yet cutting core services. Education and programs that serve the most vulnerable populations, which are core services in my view, are reduced while programs that are not defined as core services continue to be funded.
The budget proposal being considered would cut in half funding for levy equalization. That is $152 million for school districts that struggle to reach local funding goals due to low property values, low density (rural areas) and areas that have a substantial portion of property owned by state, federal and tribal governments.
Okanogan County, for example, is 77 percent government owned, leaving only 23 percent of private property owners to foot the bill for the entire county’s portion of school system funding. Levy equalization funding bridges that gap.
In the 31st Legislative District every one of our school districts would be substantially impacted by the levy equalization reduction proposal. Enumclaw, Auburn, Puyallup and Sumner school districts would each lose 100 percent of their LEA funding, or $633,630, $3.3 million, $6.1 million and $1 million, respectively.
Meanwhile, agencies and programs that are ineffective and wasteful are being funded in the budget. One example is the Puget Sound Partnership. As a member of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee, we have been delving into the waste in the PSP.
The PSP received $671 million in funding, part of which is federal money. Since the agency’s inception in 2007, it still has not defined what a “clean Puget Sound” means. There are no measurable goals that the agency has set or scientific-based research driving its agenda.
Last year, KUOW radio did a four-part series outlining the waste and abuse in the agency. The agency spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on computers that were incompatible with the state system, embroidered fleece jackets, lip balm, meetings at expensive resort locations, and produced a 2.5-minute “Dog Doogity” video about picking up dog poop at a cost of $27,000.
Despite scathing audits conducted by the JLARC and the State Auditor’s office, budget writers continue to fund the duplicate work and waste of PSP at the expense of education, elderly and disabled populations.
We all want a clean and healthy environment; however we already have an agency – the Department of Ecology – that oversees the state’s environmental controls. In fact, the DOE has seen year-over-year growth in its budget while those crafting the budget are decrying the need for higher taxes.
The way I see it, it’s time to get serious about setting our priorities and getting rid of duplicate and ineffective state agencies like the PSP and get back to funding core services. While this is just one example of how we can better prioritize spending, this is the kind of solution we need if we want a sustainable and responsible budget.
The need is urgent!
About the author: Rep. Cathy Dahlquist, R-Enumclaw, represents the 31st Legislative District, which takes in Enumclaw, Buckley, Bonney Lake, Sumner and the surrounding areas.