Republicans in the Washington Legislature have united around a clear message that taxes are not needed to bridge a $2.8 billion state budget gap this year. But the minority party is refusing to show exactly how it could get to a budget balanced without new revenue.
Top GOP budget writers said in interviews this week that it’s just not worth spelling out details for the public – or for majority Democrats, whom they blame for the state’s financial mess. The Democrats, by contrast, say they need more taxpayer money to blunt cuts to the health care safety net and public schools by raising anywhere from the House’s call for $857 million in new revenue to the Senate’s $918 million plan.
“I don’t think you’re going to find that coming from anybody,” Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County, the ranking House Republican on the budget, said when asked for his no-tax plan. “I could get to $2.8 billion if I was given the authority to do it. The point is, why would you come up with ideas when they (Democrats) have no intention to do anything with these proposals?”
Democrats say the GOP should do more than make claims. One lawmaker said it appears the minority party’s solution is to offer last-minute amendments to the budget bill that cut here and there but leave gaps and don’t solve the problem.
“With 11 days left, where is the package?” House Ways and Means vice chairman Mark Ericks, D-Bothell, asked Friday.
“Is that the way they want to offer suggestions? To wait to the last minute and offer amendments?” Ericks added. “If you were complaining about us not taking any ideas, wouldn’t you at least provide the list?”
Gov. Chris Gregoire did offer a balanced budget with no new revenues in December, but she said it was against the state’s values because it devastated the social safety net with $1.7 billion in actual spending cuts, and she vowed to seek revenues to avoid about $780 million of the cuts. She made up the rest of the gap with fund shifts, federal help and spending reserves.
Gregoire more recently proposed nearly $760 million in new general-fund revenues. Senate Democrats last week proposed their larger plan, which adds a $1-per-pack tax on cigarettes to raise $86 million for health care plans; a temporary three-tenths-of-1 percent sales tax for school programs; and $518 million in reduced tax breaks or closed tax “loopholes.”
To be fair, Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield has been offering suggestions for several years to trim state spending over the long haul, and his GOP caucus re-released a list of suggestions last week that was quite a bit out of date. It claimed to save $810 million with one list and $1.5 billion on another.
The list included dozens of ideas, including loosening the state’s monopoly on liquor sales, verifying children’s eligibility for health subsidies, stopping spending on anti-smoking campaigns, eliminating all-day kindergarten funding, and “more stringent welfare-reform sanctions.”
But the value of those theoretical cuts is difficult to determine because many of Zarelli’s suggestions were for two-year periods, and the estimates appear overstated. In the case of eliminating the last of three learning-improvement days given to public school teachers, Democrats say they will save $15 million, one-eighth of what Zarelli projected on his list.
Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla says Democrats have put the state into a situation it could have avoided. He said Zarelli has offered 56 ideas since 2005, and the real issue is whether Democrats are going to act on them.
But that was then, and 2010 is now.
Zarelli, like Alexander, said he is not going to provide a list of how to make ends meet without taxes. He did say the state should quit spending on all-day kindergarten, which is a relatively recent policy initiative, if it cannot afford other basics. Zarelli also would spend less on the subsidized Basic Health Plan for the working poor. He would put more state services out to bid to private contractors, although savings from the latter move also are hard to estimate. He estimated that putting more liquor sales in private hands might save $50 million in the short term.
Alexander also has offered up a few ideas: He presented $511 million in spending cuts as an amendment to the House Democrats’ budget plan Friday. Alexander’s ideas: Cut an extra $182 million from a GAU, the general assistance program for the disabled and hardcore unemployed; $15 million from alcoholism treatment; $10 million from capped enrollment on Running Start programs; and $49 million from two-year and four-year colleges.
Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, offered a second amendment to the budget bill, also known as House Bill 2824, that carves out $144 million more.
Alexander also would try to reduce spending on the state work force. He would reopen about two-dozen state employee contracts that Gregoire signed into law last year to accomplish the payroll savings – something his counterpart, Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, has been advocating for months.
Specifically, Alexander would go after “step,” or longevity, pay raises that more than 20,000 classified workers in general government are entitled to this year. Alexander’s amendment says he could save $9.6 million in general-fund spending and an additional $9.5 million from other state funds by getting rid of those raises, which go to a little more than one-third of classified workers in general-government agencies.
Zarelli would go even further, proposing to get $100 million or more through cutting worker pay or jobs and also moving to push more of the exploding cost of worker health insurance policies onto the employees. Zarelli said he would not favor the $49 million in savings from unpaid worker furloughs, which House and Senate Democrats’ budgets both assume for about 26 percent of state workers.
“I’d make some different choices. I’d make some reforms. There are some things I wouldn’t choose to fund. ... It is doable,’’ Zarelli said of the no-new-taxes approach.
“The goal would be to drive about $800 million in savings from reforms and spending reductions. ... I know we could get it done.”
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688