GOP, Democrats kick off budget rhetoric

News of stable state government revenues gives parties opportunity to explain nuances of cuts, increases

Staff writerMarch 21, 2013 

When explaining budgets, Republicans and Democrats in Olympia sometimes seem like they speak different languages.

That was the case Wednesday after the latest forecast showed state-government revenues remaining stable, leaving the budget shortfall facing lawmakers at $1.2 billion and setting the stage for the Legislature’s budget process.

That process is shaping up to be a rhetorical contest – with majority House Democrats differing with the Republicans who have taken control of the Senate on what constitutes a cut.

The new Senate majority is making it clear that it counts up state spending a bit differently than budgets of the past.

State balance sheets tend to start with assumptions about what would happen if there are no changes in current law. Sometimes, that means automatic increases in spending.

The new Republican budget chairman, Sen. Andy Hill of Redmond, argued that’s not how a family budget works.

“You’ve got a 16-year-old daughter who’s now driving a car,” Hill said to illustrate. “You give her $25 a week for gas, and she drives to school with her siblings. And she comes to you and says, ‘Dad, I want $100 a week for gas.’ And you say, ‘Well, that’s a little excessive. We’ll give you $30 a week, an increase of $5.’ And she goes back to high school and says, ‘My dad cut my gas money by $70.’ That is a cut in Olympia.”

The Democratic budget chairman in the House, Ross Hunter of Medina, countered Hill’s comparison with another analogy to kitchen-table budgeting, saying families have to cope with rising costs just like government does.

“You may have even gotten a raise. You got a cost-of-living adjustment to keep up with inflation,” Hunter said. “And you’re looking at a 10 percent increase in your health care costs. And you’re saying. ‘Wow, Grandma came to live with us. That increased the number of people we’re paying health care for. Maybe we had a new baby. And man, they’re driving up the premiums on us yet again.’”

Lawmakers are working on budgets that Hill expects to release next week and Hunter the following week. The amount of money they have to work with remained roughly unchanged after Wednesday’s announcement that expected revenues remain at $32.5 billion for the upcoming two-year budget period – 6.6 percent or $2 billion more than in the current period.

That’s the good news, which Republicans highlight. But the figures also show the bad news: the $1.2 billion gap between revenue and obligations under current law. An example of those increasing obligations: temporary pay cuts to state workers expire June 30 and salaries are scheduled to snap back to their previous levels.

Forecasters see bright spots, including an improving housing market. But they worry about consumer confidence, European turmoil and federal budget cuts, which they expect Congress will cancel by June 30 but could persist longer at a potential monthly cost of $6 million to state revenue.

Another hurdle for budget writers: The state Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to provide more dependable school funding. Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee expects to release a plan as early as next week for how to do that.

Hunter said House Democrats’ plan would put roughly an extra $1.4 billion into public schools to address the court decision.

Hill declined to say how much his Senate coalition of two Democrats and 23 Republicans would devote to school funding. And there will no doubt be different ways to count it. A proposal released by House Republicans last week called for devoting $817 million to the court decision, but its authors stressed that it would actually increase school funding from the last budget by $1.5 billion.

Using similar accounting, Senate Republicans announced Tuesday that their budget would lower college tuition 3 percent for in-state students and put more state money into higher education after years of cuts.

They called it a $300 million increase. By the reckoning of college officials, it was much less.

Marty Brown, director of the two-year-college system, was struggling to interpret Republicans’ math but as a former budget director for Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, he wasn’t surprised about the change in budget rhetoric with the GOP in power.

“They’ve always been very consistent,” Brown said, “in saying, ‘Why do you call it a cut if there’s more money?’”

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 @Jordan_Schrader

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