Opinion

He said, she said: local legislators talk budget

Government needs to work on priorities

There are more misconceptions this year surrounding our state’s budget than any I can remember as your state senator. You’ve all heard them; the doom and gloom comments from elected officials and the sense of hopelessness that emanated from our state capitol where we have just concluded the 2009 regular session.

Don’t get me wrong, this is the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. Your family and mine are struggling in the current climate of the economy and the picture painted by the state budget before the legislative session began in January was not a pretty one. There was a significant deficit.

All that being said, there is a key fact that we need to be aware of as we chart our course through a difficult economy and into the future – are you ready? Here it is: state government does not have a revenue shortage. I have read in an opinion editorial by Rep. Christopher Hurst that there is a $9 billion decrease in revenue. That is flatly incorrect.

Despite the downturn in the economy, state government still expects more revenue in the 2009-11 biennium ($30.5 billion) than in the 2007-09 biennium ($30.4 billion). Not much more, and not as much as was expected, but it is still revenue growth. That is something you don’t often hear from those in Olympia who want to characterize the job of balancing the budget as a near impossible task, where any solution is miraculous.

The problem is not one of revenue. The problem is that we have been basing our budget on the belief that there will always be revenue growth of a certain amount and spending as if it were already in the bank. Imagine if you handled your personal budget in the same way. If you expect a raise every year at a certain amount, and one year it isn’t quite as high as you thought it would be, do you still go ahead with that planned addition to your house? Or, do you hold off on spending for things that are not necessities and prioritize your budget?

It is not whining to point out that government does not have a revenue problem but instead has a problem with its spending priorities. That is simply common sense, and a little common sense would have gone a long way in this legislative session.

In December, before the legislative session began, I supported action on Day 1 to pass a supplemental budget that would have resulted in compound savings for the next biennium. To put that in solid terms; as an example, $600 million in ongoing policy savings on Day 1 of the legislative session would have translated to $2.4 billion in additional savings for the 2009-11 biennium.

Instead of acting immediately on a known problem, legislators drug their feet and didn’t roll up their sleeves to do the work that needed to be done until the very end of a 105-day legislative session. Now, deeper cuts are necessary and more one-time federal money will be relied upon to balance the budget.

You will not hear me saying there was an easy solution to the budget this year. Were cuts necessary? Of course they were. However, because we will take in only a little more revenue this biennium than we did last biennium, the budget came down to priorities and setting the groundwork for the future.

The two questions that needed to be asked in solving the budget issues were: 1. What are our priorities? Who takes the brunt of the cuts and who doesn’t?; and 2. Are we learning our lesson from this economic downturn and setting the groundwork for a bright and stable future?

I voted “no” on the budget this year because it did not give an acceptable answer to these questions. My decision was based on many things, but the most glaring example of the budget’s wrong priorities can be seen in the way it handles education.

Voter-approved initiatives I-728 and I-732 were suspended in the final budget. I-728 allowed our school districts to reduce class sizes, expand learning opportunities, increase teacher training, invest in early childhood education and build classrooms for K-12 and higher education. For instance, Enumclaw School District lost the funding for their excellent all-day kindergarten program with the suspension of I-728. I-732 was also suspended which provided cost-of-living increases for teachers.

Yes, budget cuts were inevitable and necessary. However, the education of our children is too important to be on the chopping block, especially when these initiatives were specifically approved by the voters. If your family is on a tight budget, would your biggest cut be to your child’s education or would you make education a higher priority?

A proposal I did strongly support this session was Senate Joint Resolution 8209. This measure would have required the Legislature, through a constitutional amendment, to save extraordinary revenue in good times so we would be prepared for difficult economic times.

Only two years ago, our state had a record surplus due to a booming housing market. In 2005-07 our state revenues grew by 21.4 percent, which is revenue growth higher than any biennium on record. Do you think government saved that excess revenue? No, we didn’t. If we had, our budget would not look as bleak as it does today.

If this economy does not teach us to save for the future and commit to responsible spending that gets our priorities straight, than I do not know what will. Unfortunately, while this legislation passed the Senate with my “yes” vote, House Democratic leadership did not bring it up for a vote.

It is true that the budget that passed the legislature does not raise taxes. While 2SSB 5433 allows local governments to increase taxes, attempts to institute an income tax or increase the state sales tax failed. They failed because the public made their voices heard and told Olympia loud and clear that raising taxes at a time when families and individuals are already struggling is the wrong thing to do. That is not whining, that is standing up for what you think is right.

We will recover from this economic downturn and there are signs that we may be nearing the bottom. The question is: will we learn from our current economic situation, prepare for the future, and get our priorities straight?

I have no doubt that our community will band together and learn this lesson, but I refuse to support a state budget that does not.

State Sen. Pam Roach represents the 31st Legislative District, which includes Enumclaw, Buckley, Bonney Lake, Sumner and surrounding areas.

Budget in tune with reality of state economy

The hope of a short economic downturn was fading quickly as the days grew shorter and the damp, dark rains of October and November turned into a bitterly snowy and cold December. By the time winter began, we all knew that we were facing the worst economic crisis in a lifetime. As we collectively struggled for signs of hope, everyone knew that the path would be long and dark.

As your state representative, I was actually eager to get to Olympia to begin tackling the difficulties of the worst budget process in a generation. That being said, I also harbored a deep concern that no matter what we did, pretty much everyone would be mad at me in the end.

But a funny and unexpected thing happened as the winter progressed. When I came back home to the district and met people, I encountered a response that I had not anticipated. When I stopped at restaurants, shopped at Safeway, saw a movie, or even bought gas for my car, people would walk up to me, to shake my hand or pat me on the back and offer heartfelt words of encouragement and even compassion. They were also glad that it was me and not them in Olympia. Even more meaningful was when some told me they trusted that I would do the very best that I could, and that for them, and this would be enough, no matter the outcome.

These acts of kindness sustained me through a dark legislative process and demonstrated the character and sense of community that we share in the 31st District.

Several other things were happening during the seemingly unending snows of last December before the session started; political pundits and newspapers were almost universally predicting that this legislature would fail and not produce a budget on time. People were predicting, and indeed even insisting, that this legislature would impose significant general tax increases to balance the budget. Finally, legislators themselves broke into two distinct camps: those who spent 105 days sitting on the sidelines and whining, doing nothing but pointing out problems, and the other group, who rolled up their sleeves on day one, faced this challenge head on and immediately began the arduous process of seeking and implementing solutions.

In the end, the naysayers and pundits were proven wrong. This legislature passed a balanced budget, completed its work on time and did so without a general tax increase. Is it a great budget? No. This budget reflects the economic realities of our time. Tough decisions had to be made and no area of state government was spared. Although there is much one could criticize in this budget, in the end, its redemption lies in that it is responsible, in keeping with the fiscal reality.

When I went to Olympia on the 12th of January, I made a commitment to the citizens of the 31st District that we would balance this budget within existing revenues. I would oppose any effort to impose a general tax increase. Although I knew we would face difficult decisions based upon this principle and that many cuts would be made, I also felt that government had to face the same realities being felt by families and the business community; learning to live with less while facing an uncertain future.

I’m sure you heard many stories as the session unfolded about proposals to impose an income tax, raise the sales tax, increase taxes on businesses and new taxing systems that nobody had even heard of before. Early in the session, I banded together with a group of moderates from the majority party and we defeated every one of these proposals.

One of the frustrations of this legislative session was that the whiners, who were sitting on the sidelines incessantly complaining, got the lion’s share of media attention when bad proposals came up. Although they were quick to complain when it suited their purpose of frightening the public, never once did they come back and give credit when each of those proposals were systematically defeated by those of us who got the real work done.

Although little was amusing this session, I did have to smile as I watched one interesting group. Their economic principle can be described as nothing less than profoundly silly. It is based upon the idea that the average voter is easily fooled. All within the same hour, this fringe political contingent demanded catastrophic cuts to government and taxes, while at the same time insisting that we actually expand services.

This group said we could slash all taxes, yet build more roads, that we could cut taxes across the board, yet expand education, and that we should reduce government revenue while locking up more prisoners and putting more police and firefighters on the street. Ideas long on magic, but short on fiscal reality and common-sense truth.

Simply put, people were either part of the problem or part of the solution. The history of human nature has always exposed this defect in character in challenging times. This isn’t about Democrats versus Republicans, or liberals versus conservatives, this is about how individual people respond when the collective choices become truly frightening.

This economic crisis was an opportunity to make government leaner and much progress has been made in that regard, even though there is more to be done. It was also an opportunity to see whether we could pass a balanced budget when faced with a $9 billion decrease in revenue. That challenge was fully met.

The same people who sat on the sidelines at the start of the legislative session and spent their time complaining for 105 days will want your attention once again. Sadly, they are frustrated because we didn’t fail. Rather than admit we passed a balanced budget on time, they will criticize our success as “unsustainable.” You will hear them declare once more, as they have every year for the last 10 years, that the sky is falling, and that citizens should be in fear for their safety.

But you will probably notice that they have been saying this exact same thing for the last 10 years. In fact we have passed budgets without deficits in each of the last 10 years. Much to their great disappointment, the sky never fell and in truth, people are safer than they were 10 years ago when it comes to public safety. In fact, we now have the lowest crime rate in 17 years.

Are we facing difficult economic times? Of course we are. But there are many signs in the last couple of months that we are either nearing, or are at the bottom of this economic downturn. Although the recovery will be long and slow, the state of Washington is now well poised to continue providing responsible levels of service to the citizens, consistent with the economic realities we must face. Is it perfect? Far from it. But I sincerely believe that we did the best that we could and resisted the opportunity to trade bad public policy for short-term political expediency.

State Rep. Christopher Hurst represents the 31st Legislative District, which includes Enumclaw, Buckley, Bonney Lake, Sumner and surrounding areas.

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