Further cuts will imperil core functions

By Karim Meghji

On Wednesday evening, Gov. Chris Gregoire held a forum in Everett to hear public feedback on the state budget. More than 400 people turned out to express their concerns about what next year’s budget might mean for Washington. The situation we’re facing isn’t pretty.

The recession has hit the state budget hard. Over the past two years, we’ve already cut more than $4 billion from essential public structures like education, health care and environmental protections. Some of the cuts are immediately apparent — reduced services and shorter hours — some are more insidious, with impacts that won’t be obvious until farther down the road. And now the economy is presenting new challenges to our state and the values we all share.

It’s easy to forget that our state budget is indeed a reflection of our values and how we expect our government to realize those values: the best education we can give our children, support for friends and families struggling in this economy, access to health care by all, stewardship and protection of our state’s beautiful (and precious) natural resources and preserving the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink.

Environmental protection programs have already been gutted and right now they are balancing on the knife’s edge — further cuts will impair their core functions. And that is very bad news for our state — as we go through the budget process, we must not cut these programs any further.

What kind of programs am I talking about when I say “environmental protections”? Programs that do things like: a) ensure safe cleanup of hazardous materials, b) clean up contaminated toxic sites to protect public health, c) work with local governments to prepare for and minimize property damage from floods, d) monitor and improve air pollution levels so that we don’t endanger our children’s health.

It’s tempting to consider the possibility of taking time off from maintaining our environmental programs. However, putting programs on hold can be costly, both financially and due to reduced effectiveness As we’ve learned from the horrible mess in the Gulf of Mexico, cleaning up pollution is far trickier and much more expensive than preventing it from happening in the first place.

We can’t deny the reality of the budget crisis, but we can choose the manner in which we face the challenge. For example, one way to fund these critical protections might be to set up fees for services so that industries that mine, log, irrigate or pollute our state’s natural resources pay their fair share for protections. We should also re-assess the tax exemptions currently given to industries that pollute. Those that don’t make sense should be eliminated before any further cuts are contemplated.

Washington attracts the best and the brightest — it’s a big part of the reason why our state’s economy has remained strong over the years. And people continue to be drawn to Washington because it’s such a great place to live, work, play and raise a family. We need to make choices regarding the state budget that reflect our values and the state we want to live in — not out of fear, but out of determination to meet the challenge head on and emerge from it with our essential protections intact, our public health safeguarded, and children’s future brighter than ever.

Karim Meghji is a board member of the Snohomish County Chapter of Washington Conservation Voters.