Despite the fact that the state now faces an unprecedented $9 billion revenue shortfall—nearly 25-percent of what’s needed to maintain services at current levels—the Republicans and their editorial board surrogates are still demanding that Gov. Gregoire stick by her campaign rhetoric and reject any proposed tax or fee increase. So… what exactly would an all-cuts budget look like? Well, we’re about to find out.
This biennium it’s the Senate’s turn to lead off budget negotiations, and word in the Capitol hallways is that an all-cuts draft is being prepared for release early next week. I don’t have the details—they’re still being nailed down—but it isn’t hard to speculate. A hundred thousand people cut from the state’s Basic Health plan? 20-percent from higher education? Elimination of funding for community health clinics and many out-patient programs for the elderly and the disabled? Temporary closure of many state parks? A dramatic reduction in ferry service? Early release for non-violent prisoners?
Whatever it is, it’s going to be devastating, and it will be interesting to see the all-cuts proponents’ response. No doubt some will cynically charge that Senate Democratic Leaders are merely trying to scare voters, but it’s hard to see how a 25-percent revenue shortfall can result in anything but devastating cuts in basic services and elimination of whole swaths of our health and social safety net… especially with about half of the budget completely off the table.
About 45-percent of the state budget is dedicated to K-12 education, with a constitutionally mandated obligation to fund basic education protecting the bulk of its funding. Sure, the class size and teachers pay initiatives will be suspended, and a few other “extras” slashed or eliminated, but the state has little if any room to achieve substantial cost-savings within the biggest chunk of its budget. Add to that fixed costs in our prisons, courts, police and other law enforcement and public safety services, and we’re left with only about a third of our state budget that can possibly be considered discretionary.
Thus even if the self-proclaimed fiscal hawks are right that the $9 billion figure is exaggerated, the shortfall softened by a few billion dollars in federal stimulus aid and a billion dollars from our rainy day fund, we’re still talking about 40-percent cuts from the portion of the budget that can absorb any substantial cuts at all. And don’t kid yourselves that those cuts will be temporary. The federal aid and rainy day funds are one-off windfalls, and even when the economy starts to recover, it won’t likely recover fast enough or strong enough to make up the difference by the next biennium.
Yes, this budgetary crisis was largely precipitated by a sudden collapse in home sales and consumer spending, but these revenues will never return to former levels. The real estate bubble, like the dot.com bubble before it, is gone for the forseeable future, and with it the revenue growth that has long masked our state’s long term structural revenue deficit. The highly regressive retail sales and excise taxes on which we rely for the bulk of our revenues are levied on an ever shrinking portion of our post-industrial, service and information based economy: the sale of material goods. Thus unless we raise taxes, or dramatically restructure our tax system to meet the reality of the twenty-first century, state and local government will continue to shrink as a portion of our total economy, and with it, the services taxpayers have come to expect and demand.
When the Senate budget is released next week we will have an opportunity to examine one vision of Washington’s future… a vision much closer to that of Alabama or Mississippi than the one we hold now. It is a vision that will surely make many Republicans happy.
And it would be a shame if Democrats allowed the minority to achieve their vision by default.