State may squeeze money from county

"Budget woes are causing a division among Island County politicians.As co-chair of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, State Rep. Barry Sehlin, R-Oak Harbor, may be putting the budget squeeze on the Island County Commissioners as part of a wider strategy to reduce state funding to counties.Commissioner Mac McDowell, R-Oak Harbor, criticized Sehlin implicitly in a news release issued Friday. He said funding that the Legislature promised the state's counties last year is in jeopardy, and that Sehlin, as a newly elected representative, has some obligation to accept the Legislature's promise to the county.In a separate news release, Commission Chairman Bill Thorn, D-Camano Island, said that if the state does not come through with its promised funding, programs may have to be cut. He specifically mentioned public health and criminal justice.Speaking by phone from his office in Olympia on Monday, Sehlin admitted to some impatience as one interest group after another demands increased funding. Disgruntled state workers went on a rolling walkout last week, teachers have threatened to strike, and money is tight for many important state services.In that context, Sehlin said of the counties, I'm losing patience with these folks.Sehlin said the so-called promise the Legislature made to the counties last year came in the form of a statement of intent attached to an appropriation. The intent was made with all good intent, he said, stressing the word intent. But it's an intent. Things change.That's not a good enough explanation for Thorn. They're trying to split hairs and rationalize their way out of the problem, he said Tuesday.The Legislature ended its regular session Friday with no budget. A special session begins Wednesday. The Senate did approve its budget, but the House has yet to make its budget public. That will happen today, Wednesday, Sehlin said. Until then any talk of cuts are speculation at this point.Sehlin blames the state's budget problems on two initiatives passed by voters last November. One directs money to reduce school class sizes, and the other guarantees teachers a cost of living pay increase. Sehlin said the result was $732 million taken out of the state budget, and now, We're truly looking at reductions.While the counties demand more money for their programs, Sehlin has to balance all the state's needs. I see no reason why county government should be ahead of children's health care, or K-12 education, he said.Island County can trace its budget problems to a different initiative, I-695, the $30 license tab initiative, which was approved by voters in 1999. Although later overruled by the courts, the Legislature passed a law to reduce vehicle licensed to $30.According to Commissioner Thorn, I-695 reduced Island County's state funding by $700,000 last year. However, the Legislature then back-filled that loss, covering 53 percent. Thorn said the language in that appropriation said the state will continue that level of funding.Counties, such as ours, budgeted for this year on that promise, Thorn said.The slowing economy is also hurting Island County. Thorn described sales tax receipts as flat, and he noted that interest rates have also dropped, reducing the county's investment income.The commissioners say the public should pressure their representatives to fund county governments as promised last year.Thorn did express some sympathy for Sehlin's situation. They've got a tremendous problem in Olympia, he said. I totally understand the dilemma . . . but my job is to make sure Island County stays in their face.If the state reduces the money it gives to counties, Thorn said the impact could hit as early as July. We'll have to make a midcourse (budget) correction, he said. "

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