Lawmakers’ budget options are limited

On Monday a 30-day special session of the Washington State Legislature will commence, as the state faces a $2.2 billion shortfall in revenue for the 2011-2013 budget.

On Monday a 30-day special session of the Washington State Legislature will commence, as the state faces a $2.2 billion shortfall in revenue for the 2011-2013 budget.

When we left Olympia in late May, our biennial budget included a $723 million surplus and we were optimistic that the economy was improving. However, revenue forecasts since May have been negative as sales tax revenues fail to stabilize. Thus, we now face another revenue shortfall — just six months later. Unfortunately the surplus upon which we relied has proven to be insufficient.

The operating budget for the state is $31.7 billion. Last session we made $5 billion in cuts to balance that budget, and over three years of the recession we’ve cut $10 billion in public services. Cuts to higher education and the state’s basic health plan were a part of that mix, and the safety net for families in need was severely impacted as well. Now we have to cut another $2.2 billion from that same budget, and there is no doubt that means impacts to families in our state.

The Associated Press noted in a Nov. 14 story, “the state will have about the same amount of revenue in 2013 as it did in 2007 — while the government will be servicing 3.3 percent more K-12 students and even higher caseloads in social services programs.”

As our population grows, more students are in our classrooms and the recession has placed more families in need of state support. Yet our revenues, which rely heavily on sales tax, are not increasing in order to provide the services government should provide.

As I talk with constituents on Vashon and elsewhere in the 34th Legislative District, they raise questions about whether we will end corporate subsidies (tax loopholes) and raise revenue instead of passing another draconian, all-cuts budget. I do support trying to pass a revenue package and recognize that what will be included will be heavily debated in Olympia.

It is important that citizens know that Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1153, which was recently passed, requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and the Senate to approve a revenue package, including closing corporate subsidies. Closing corporate loopholes is a “tax increase” under I-1153.

I do not foresee either the House or the Senate being able to come up with that two-thirds vote. So our alternative will be to try to pass a revenue package with a simple majority and place it on the ballot as early as possible next year for a statewide vote. The budget we vote on would still be an “all-cuts budget” but the revenue package, if passed, would allow us to restore programs.

With the soda industry financing an initiative two years ago to roll back the tax we placed on soda and candy, and with one retailer funding an initiative to privatize the liquor system in our state, I am very aware that as we try to close select corporate loopholes those corporations may spend tens of millions of dollars to convince voters to not support a revenue package. So the legislature will have to carefully analyze the potential opposition to any package placed on the ballot, and that filter will be an important part of our discussion.

Two years ago progressive legislators, including myself, were clear that any increase in sales tax was off the table. At this point in time, I am willing to look at all options as we continue the debate on the budget and revenue package. The cuts we will have to make are too deep and will impact our children’s education, from pre-K through college, and the most fragile in our society.

As legislators, we have a responsibility to balance the budget, and we will. But we also have a responsibility to our neighbors to help our communities recover and thrive. Working together, we can meet both those responsibilities. We are open to all options and committed to finding a path forward that the people of Washington will support.

Since the Great Depression, every recession has lasted about 18 months and then job recovery commenced and the nation’s economy picked up. The current recession started 47 months ago, and although it is technically “over,” the job recovery and the economy limps along. Washington state, along with almost every other state, continues to pay for the terrible lending practices of the Wall Street banks and the impacts of two wars on our economy.

As I head back to Olympia, I will work to protect programs where possible and to ensure that we put a viable revenue package on the ballot as soon as possible.


— Sharon Nelson is a state senator and Maury Island resident.