Budget ideas, many pleas not to cut

State: Governor's forum brings out interest groups

July 20, 2010 

STATE CAPITOL AT NIGHT

The Washington State Capitol in Olympia. (Tony Overman/The Olympian)

Stop feeding state workers during meetings. Let cars have just one license plate. Cut off drug users from public aid, or legalize marijuana and tax it.

If Monday’s outpouring of opinions is any guide, there’s an untapped resource for ideas to fix next year’s expected $3 billion hole in the state budget: the public.

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s website on transforming the budget lit up with more than 80 comments in the first hours of its existence, like the ones on license plates and refreshments at meetings.

Then a standing-room only crowd of about 450 showed up to the University of Washington Tacoma for the first of Gregoire’s four public hearings on the budget.

But interest groups abounded at the forum, and most of the speakers didn’t suggest ideas for reform or efficiencies. They were there to push a cause or argue their budget shouldn’t be trimmed.

“I thought it was supposed to be, ‘How do we solve the budget problem,’” said Vern Padgett, a Tacoma importer and seller of bicycle helmets who offered ideas on tax and malpractice reform. “All I heard was, ‘Don’t cut my program.’”

Marty Brown, Gregoire’s budget director who led the meeting, said he still expects useful ideas to come from the forums. He was surprised by the hundreds who showed up.

“It’s obvious people cared,” he said.

Some 140 people signed up to speak, far more than just over an hour of testimony allowed.

What shouldn’t be cut: Preservation of recreation areas, said one. Affordable housing, said another. Education and health care, said yet another – categories that describe most of the state budget. Community custody of criminals, said Ginger Richardson, a probation officer and union official.

State employees “do the job no one else wants to do,” she said. “We do it tirelessly, we do it dedicated, and we do it without even being asked at endless hours.”

Maria McGuire, a Defense Department employee who drove in from Port Orchard to listen, came concerned about funding for trails, but also wondering about whether the state is wasting money on some of its salaries and benefits.

“They work for a short period of time and they get a huge bunch of benefits for life,” McGuire said.

There are no sacred cows, Gregoire said to start off the forum: Every program is on the table for changes.

One thing people attending the forums aren’t asked for is advice on how the state can find more money. “We’re not going to be talking about revenue,” Brown said earlier in an interview.

The crowd thought differently. Several people stood to say a sales tax break for the TransAlta power plant in Centralia should end.

On the website, they offered up tax cuts for businesses, a state income tax and legalized gambling and that idea about the health benefits of marijuana for the state’s budget illness.

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