Opinion

Tough budget hangs over state, lawmakers

As we prepare for the 2010 legislative session, the deep recession we entered in 2008 continues to cloud the futures of many families as well as the state’s budget forecasts.

The impacts of the recession are apparent everywhere, making it harder for working families to make ends meet even if they still have jobs. Unemployment and underemployment remain high, placing too many of our friends and relatives in difficult circumstances. Foreclosures continue to affect those who were sold questionable loan products by financial institutions during the housing boom.

The state budget continues to feel the impact of this recession as well. This economic decline resulted in a sharp downturn of projected state revenues last year, leading to a $9 billion revenue shortfall in the 2009-2011 budget. Last session, the Legislature filled that gap with a mix of one-time federal money, fund transfers and severe budget cuts.

The cuts were deep but necessary to balance the budget once a decision was made to not seek additional revenue sources. The impacts of these budget cuts are already being felt in our schools and our community health clinics, by those who have state-subsidized health care such as Basic Health and many others. I have met with the Vashon Community Care Center, Vashon HouseHold, Vashon Youth & Family Services and many other agencies on Vashon; the state’s budget is affecting their current operations — their ability to help those in need on our Island.

As lawmakers prepare to return to Olympia for the 2010 Legislature, the state is facing yet another shortfall — this time, an estimated $2.8 billion. Gov. Chris Gregoire, when she presented the first draft of her budget, made it clear that another all-cuts budget would result in completely unacceptable reductions to our schools, our health care support systems and our social safety net. Without additional revenues, she noted, we face forcing another 65,000 citizens off of the Basic Health Plan, 16,000 children will lose access to health care and our K-12 education system, as well as higher education, will again be deeply affected. I firmly believe that we have slashed enough and that it is time to increase state revenue to mitigate the worst of the proposed cuts.

I strongly support efforts to find new state revenue. Some of the changes under consideration include the elimination of tax exemptions, such as sales tax exemptions for cosmetic surgery and professional services, including those provided by attorneys and tax preparers. Removing any exemptions will be difficult because all of them have powerful constituencies prepared to fight to keep them. However, now is the time for such a debate in the Legislature.

I would like to see changes to make the tax system in Washington more progressive. But long-range tax reform will take time, and we need to act immediately. We must look at eliminating certain tax breaks and consider fees or taxes on professional services, among other options that can generate revenue in 2010.

A potential revenue package is still under discussion and preparation. A key component for many of us will be how large of a package is needed to truly prevent the cuts planned for the Basic Health program and our public schools, as well as other core state services.

As this fight approaches, we will need your support. Polls indicate that more than 55 percent of our state’s citizens do not see the impacts of the budget cuts yet, but for those who are impacted, the cuts are affecting their daily lives. Our school district, for example, has had to look at a loss of teachers, reduced services and increased class sizes, all of which have an effect on our children’s education.

Please talk to your friends and neighbors about the fact that the harm caused by an all-cuts budget would be too severe for our state and would cause permanent damage to our economy, our schools and services to our seniors and vulnerable citizens. With your help, we can ensure that this year’s budget takes a responsible approach.

— Rep. Sharon Nelson, a Democrat, represents Vashon and Maury Island in the State House of Representatives.

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