Fourteen days after it began, we ended the special legislative session Wednesday with the passage of an Early Action budget bill. By conducting committee hearings and a host of other meetings with staff, constituents, advocates, lobbyists and members, we also got a head start on the policy bills we'll consider during the upcoming regular session that begins on January 9.
It became clear several months after session ended last year that the severe cuts we’d made would not be enough: the economy continued to falter, and because our tax system depends so much on sales tax, our revenues continued to fall. We’ve been in discussions for many months about how to confront the deficit.
In October, when Governor Gregoire called us into a special session to begin December 1, she instructed us to take care of the entire $2 billion revenue deficit. On November 21, she presented her proposal to resolve the deficit. As I write here, the Governor proposed one budget that contained only cuts and cost-saving reforms, and a second budget combining cuts, reforms, and several strategies to raise new revenue. Both of her proposals contain cuts that would hurt a wide range of Washingtonians: youth who depend on good schools, social services, and a strong healthcare system; adults who are struggling with unemployment and need access to safety net programs; and our elders who depend on services that assist them to survive. Almost all areas of state services would be harmed, from transportation to our criminal justice system.
While we didn’t meet the Governor’s expectations of resolving the entire deficit, our Early Action bill closes the gap between our expected revenues and our expected expenses for the rest of the biennium by about 25 percent by putting into place about $498 million:
· Maintenance Level net change, $96.5 million. This is mostly accounting for lower-than-expected health care costs in the current biennium.
· Policy Level net changes, $226.4 million. These are actual changes in policy that reduce our costs. Although the actual cuts to service are in this section, there are also accounting changes.
· Fund Transfers, $106.2 million. These are unspent funds and money being moved into the general fund, mostly savings agencies have racked up by tightly managing their budgets.
· Unclaimed Property, $50.6 million. The state would sell unclaimed securities (stocks, bonds) immediately, rather than in three years, reimbursing those that later claim the property with the net proceeds.
This legislation is composed primarily of the “low-hanging fruit” of budget items: mostly non-controversial items that, in comparison to the other strategies we’ll consider during the regular session, cause the least amount of pain to our constituents and public services. It includes no new taxes or revenue sources. Personally, I would have preferred that votes on revenue come before, not after, our vote on cuts. I’m disappointed that we didn’t formally consider new revenue as a part of this early action package, but I’m glad that there seems to be growing support among legislators for raising revenue through new taxes and closing tax loopholes.
We’ve pushed most of the tough and controversial decisions on revenue and cuts to the regular session. Still, we’re well ahead of where we’d otherwise be if the Legislature had simply convened in January. Our responsibility as elected officials is to put our constituents first and foremost. We’ll continue the democratic process of hearing from the many people whose lives may be changed by cuts; look beyond the governor’s proposal for missed alternatives; and collaborate with our house and Republican colleagues to build the consensus necessary to pass the budget. Those decisions deserve time and consideration, and we will give them that.
You can find info about the Early Action bill at the website for the Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program.
Big items in the policy changes
$49 million saved through a one-time delay in distribution of school bus replacement funding.
$38 million in assumed federal contingency funds for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
$23 million saved by delaying changes in the Involuntary Treatment Act that would have increased services to the seriously mentally ill. See HB 2131 for more information.
$12 million saved by converting the oldest units at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla – “stacks” not used in modern high-security prisons – from medium to minimum security units.
Many of the full-time equivalent positions eliminated in this plan have been held empty. Nevertheless, every slot eliminated and every position held empty is one less Washingtonian earning a paycheck for their family. Major impacts:
76 Full Time Employees (FTEs) are positions that were assumed, but will not be created if we go ahead with changes to the Involuntary Treatment Act.
100 FTEs are eliminated at the Washington State Penitentiary. These are job losses, as the oldest units are today staffed at medium-security levels.
The decisions we made for the Early Action bill were by no means insignificant. Our actions included the delay of increased services to the seriously mentally ill, which will impact their families and communities. We reduced hundreds of jobs in a time when our communities need more, not fewer, paychecks. After the New Year, our task is to devise a budget that combines cuts, reforms and new revenue to assist our state to navigate through this recession. We must chart a responsible course – one that meets our constitutional obligations to our kids, our moral responsibility to our most vulnerable citizens and our economic imperative to get people back to work.