State budget problem won’t be solved mathematically

  • Wed Feb 15th, 2012 7:51pm
  • News

Jerry Cornfield Herald Columnist

A new forecast of state tax collections is coming out this morning.

Once it arrives, lawmakers will have all the pieces in hand needed to assemble a balanced budget.

Now they just have to figure out which ones go together and which don’t in the remaining 21 days of the regular session.

Today’s good news is the size of the deficit puzzle is shrinking. With fewer people demanding state services and tax revenues on a slightly upward trajectory, the shortfall is expected to dip from $1.5 billion to around $1 billion, of which half is envisioned as reserves.

On the dark side, carving another billion bucks of spending from the hide of government isn’t going to be easy for Democrats or Republicans, nearly all of whom will be explaining their actions to voters to fall.

Democrats face the greater degree of difficulty as they hold majorities in the House and Senate and thus are the ones driving the process. In each caucus, they’ve got members still hallucinating on hope they can avoid further spending cuts.

These Democrats arrived in January believing the easiest solution to the budget problem is by coming up with money from new or higher taxes. For them, the most important piece in this puzzle is revenue, and they’ve plopped a whole bunch of variations onto the table for consideration.

For example, 23 Democrats led by Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds, sponsored a bill to tax the income of the state’s millionaires and use the money for schools. It would affect an estimated 4,000 people and net $186 million for the current budget.

While it’s certain to go nowhere, it will be remembered for its creatively long title: “Guaranteeing that the top 1 percent pay too, through assessing a 2 percent tax on millionaires to fund the paramount duty trust fund and reduce class sizes in grades kindergarten through four.”

Mathematically, new revenue is the easiest way of solving the problem. Politically, it doesn’t add up.

If lawmakers draw conclusions from the facts as they’ve been in recent years, they’ll realize voters will approve new taxes to fix the roads they drive on and support the schools in their neighborhood.

Ask them to ante up for a state-run program they’ve never heard of or never needed and the answer is no. 2010 made that crystal clear with the repeal of two-cent tax on cans of soft drinks for health care and human service programs.

Gov. Chris Gregoire understood this when she crafted her proposal to put a half-cent hike in the sales tax on the ballot. She specifically chose to make controversial money-saving moves in her budget, such as shortening the school year and releasing convicted criminals from prison early, and then making these the items to be bought back with money from a sales tax hike.

Gregoire knows something about winning elections; she did win all her races for attorney general and governor. She recognized the risk of her proposal. It bets on voters agreeing to pay for things they don’t want to see happen, which is less risky than hoping they do so for services voters might actually want to see disappear.

Lawmakers, to this point, have not given her proposal serious consideration. Today’s revenue forecast may, in their minds, make it moot. Republicans will certainly feel that way.

However, if a large bloc of Democrats keep pushing for revenue, then arguably this idea is the shortest path to finishing the budget. They can put it on the ballot with a simple majority which means Republican support isn’t required.

At a minimum, it could ensure lawmakers get out of town on time.

What’s the worst that could happen? Voters reject the sales tax measure and lawmakers return to reassemble the pieces.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at Contact him at 360-352-8623 or