More state budget cuts warned

There will be no easy answers in Olympia come the 2005-06 budget cycle.

With a constitutionally illegal $363 million general fund deficit predicted as early as 2006, legislators — most of whom stand for election in November — may be out of ways to trim the budgets of state agencies, education, health care and other state functions. At the same time, they’re staying mum on the issue of raising more money through taxes.

This week, with seven days to go before the state Legislature convenes to consider the state’s supplemental budget for 2004, two legislators, Barbara Bailey and Barry Sehlin, both of Oak Harbor, have been stopping in at newspapers and radio stations throughout their 10th Legislative District to talk about where they and their colleagues will find the money to keep the state running not just in the next biennium, but in the years after that.

That’s not going to be easy. It’s been almost 11 years since tax income has allowed a major and real increase in expenditures on state programs, functions and agencies. The last time Washington saw any kind of a budget surplus was 1999, just before a dramatic stock market drop.

Since then, said Sehlin this week, the Legislature has just been making small cuts and has generally avoided giving more money to anything. At the same time, legislators have been reluctant to increase taxes or fees. The only notable increase was a 5-cent per gallon increase in the state gas tax, which goes only to transportation and not to the general fund.

Sehlin doesn’t expect any change in the strategy, even though a possible deficit of nearly $3 billion looms by the end of the decade, according to the state’s Office of Financial management.

“If history is any guide, we will continue to muddle along,” he said.

Neither Sehlin nor Bailey were proposing solutions during their trip around the district. Rather, they were summarizing the state’s budget situation from their point of view, and warning taxpayers in their district that some sort of solution will come soon to head off any deficit spending. States are constitutionally barred from going into the red.

“Thus, the numbers have to be fixed,” Sehlin said.

In the coming biennium, the OFM projects that the state will spend about $24 billion to support its general fund expenses. Of that, Sehlin said, 85 percent will go to education, health care and prisons. About 1 percent will go to the state’s regulatory agencies — the departments of Ecology, Parks, Agriculture, Fish and Wildlife, and Natural Resources — which have been regular but, in his mind, inappropriate targets of budget cutting measures.

What these numbers mean is that any cuts made to balance future state budgets will likely come out of education, health care and prisons. Of the three, only one — prisons — seems like a popular cutting target. But whether it is a likely target is in doubt. The state’s prison population grew from about 13,000 inmates in 1997 to 16,000 in 2002, according to the Department of Corrections. And though the Legislature attempted to change sentencing guidelines to keep some criminals out of lockup, that prison population continues to grow.

Sehlin said he wishes the Legislature could make wholesale cuts to the prison system, but he can’t see how.

“It is perhaps the single biggest waste of money in the entire world,” he said.

During the next biennium, Sehlin said he does not see sweeping proposals for budget balancing coming from the Legislature. Both he and Bailey avoided questions about which specific taxes they might raise when more money is needed. Instead, Sehlin passed the responsibility for proposing major changes to the governor’s office.

And if the task is not handled there, the alternative is already in practice.

“We will be getting closer to being like California,” he said of Washington’s debt-ridden southern neighbor.

The Legislature will start its 60-day supplemental budget session on Monday.

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