With the official budget shortfall now at $5.1 billion for the next 2 1/2 years -- a hole that's $1.9 billion deeper than it was already -- the legislative session that starts in January will be agonizing. Bad choices will be the only ones on the table, and no one is going to be happy.
Newly re-elected Gov. Chris Gregoire has taken a realistic tone, warning lawmakers and agency heads that they won't like the budget she offers. The governor appears ready to make tough choices, having reiterated her wise opposition to tax increases and calling on agencies to come up with plans for cuts of up to 20 percent.
Tax increases are no solution in an economy that's faltering mostly because people aren't spending money. Leaving them with less to spend makes no sense, nor does further taxing businesses that are struggling to keep workers on their payrolls.
Spending reductions are the only place to go, and an obvious place to start is with new programs such as the recently passed initiative requiring more state-funding training for home health workers, a paid family leave program and tax rebates for lower-income households. Recommendations from the recent flurry of performance audits must be examined closely and seriously. Programs that aren't delivering significant benefits should be eliminated. With a shortfall this big, everything has to be on the table.
Care must be taken, however, to minimize long-term damage. Cut too deeply into community college funding, for example, and you could further damage the economy by eliminating training opportunities that lead to good-paying jobs -- and greater government revenues.
"We are the first responders in economic development," Everett Community College President David Beyer noted Wednesday, "and there's probably no response that costs less than community colleges in contributing to the state's economy."
Cuts of up to 20 percent in community college budgets would likely see entire programs eliminated, jobs lost and tuition increased substantially, Beyer said. Rather than a road to recovery, that's a road to ruin.
A $5.1 billion budget deficit leaves no room for sacred cows, but in making the painful decisions that will be necessary, lawmakers and the governor must be careful not to starve real solutions.
To offer your own budget suggestions to the governor, go to www.governor.wa.gov/budget.asp.
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