Government needs to get its priority straight

Columnist

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 Bonney Lake, Sumner, Enumclaw, Buckley and surrounding areas.