Tough budget calls for creativity, leadership and a new look at our tax structure

  • Tuesday, December 30, 2008 4:30pm
  • Opinion


For The Beachcomber

How can we educate our children and protect our neighborhoods while balancing the state budget? 

As a lawmaker, it’s my duty to pass a balanced budget. Although a balanced budget is not required by the state constitution, borrowing to meet short-term operating deficits is not financially responsible.

With the global recession, our state revenues are down almost $6 billion, and that number may increase. Thus, the state must decide how to manage this very large budget gap.

The governor just released her proposed budget, which is balanced without any new taxes. It’s just a starting point, but it’s not pretty: There are deep cuts to public schools, health care and public safety. 

Local cuts to schools

All of our local school districts — Vashon, Seattle and Highline — are facing cuts. Under the governor’s proposed budget, we would suspend the teacher pay increases approved by citizens with Initiative 732, saving taxpayers about $350 million, but hurting our efforts to recruit and keep talented teachers. 

The governor’s no-new-taxes budget would also cut funding by 24 percent for Initiative 728, which reduces class sizes. 

These cuts will hurt, especially when our local schools are struggling to improve WASL scores, tutor students struggling with English as a second language and reduce the difference in test scores between students from economically disadvantaged homes and students from more advantaged parents.

The “Basic Education Funding Proposal,” which was presented to the state in early October, is very clear that we need additional resources to meet the state’s paramount duty to educate our children. This proposal lays out a framework to improve education in the state of Washington, and that framework cannot be implemented by cutting the funding we provide to our school districts.

Cuts to colleges and universities

The governor’s budget also cuts appropriations for universities by 13 percent and community and technical colleges by 6 percent. The budget, additionally, assumes that tuition will increase by up to 7 percent per year at our universities and up to 5 percent per year at our two-year colleges. 

As the parent of two daughters, with my youngest about to graduate from the University of Washington this March, I realize that these tuition increases will be tough on working families and students struggling to pay for their education. It also comes at a time when more and more people need the chance to go back to college after being laid off from their jobs.

These cuts and tuition increases assist the state in solving its fiscal crisis, but serious questions remain unanswered as to how these recommendations will impact our higher education system for the next five or 10 years. Will we lose talented faculty? How many students will lose this opportunity to attend a community college or a university due to enrollment being closed or the costs being too high?

What comes next

We’re also facing cuts to health care, medical coverage for children and aid to the most vulnerable among us, just when times are getting tougher and more people are looking for help. 

I want our state to provide quality education for our children and to be known for its community and technical colleges, as well as for its four-year universities. My goal is to have each child prepared and ready for kindergarten and for basic health care to be a right not a privilege for our families. 

So out of the challenge that the revenue forecast and this budget provide, my goal is for a dialogue to begin in Olympia about how we are going to fund required state services as well as local government services, not just for this biennium but for the long-term fiscal health of the state. 

We rely heavily on the sales tax – which is a regressive tax, affecting low and middle income families the most. Tim Eyman’s initiatives have eliminated other funding sources, such as the motor vehicle excise tax – which funded public health, our ferry system and other critical services. 

The solutions that we develop for our state’s funding at this time will affect our state for years to come. The crisis we face puts us in a position where we must be creative and willing to recognize that the investment we make in each child, in each family, benefits all of us.

We must reconsider funding sources that allow us to make the necessary investments in our children, families and our communities. I look forward to hearing from you as we carry on this debate in Olympia. 

— Rep. Sharon Nelson (D-Maury Island) represents the 34th Legislative District, which includes Vashon, West Seattle and parts of Burien.

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