During the past two legislative sessions, financial pressures caused by statewide ballot initiatives, plus the difficulty of working with a Democratic-Republican tie in the House of Representatives, caused near gridlock in Olympia. Now the really hard work is about to begin: Working under similar conditions without the benefit of an economic boom to bail out critical programs.
According to Sherry Appleton, lobbyist for the Coalition for a Jewish Voice, two possible outcomes in the Nov. 6 election could help, but she is not optimistic about their chances. The first possibility is a Democratic win in the 21st legislative district in South Snohomish County, which Appleton says is the most likely race this year to break the tie in the House. The second possibility — about which she is not at all optimistic — is the defeat of Initiative 747, which would set a cap on property tax increases.
“If 747 were to pass, what would happen is that local governments that fund police, fire and public health districts would be severely impacted,” Appleton said. “The state would be severely impacted not the first year but the year after because they wouldn’t have the money for schools. In order to not cut basic education, they would have to cut other programs.”
Remy Trupin, the government affairs associate for the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, reports that talk about cuts in government programs have already begun even though the Legislature won’t be in session until January. Gov. Gary Locke has told his cabinet that $1 billion will have to be cut from the budget. Trupin adds, there’s “only really one pie to take money out of — human services. Everything else is protected.”
When Trupin met with the governor’s budget director, Marty Brown, earlier this month, he offered a preview of the revenue picture for the state. “The bottom line: Revenue is likely to be down dramatically and large cuts are imminent,” Trupin says. Government analysis shows the state’s budget issues began well before Sept. 11, but consumer confidence has plunged since and the next economic forecasts are likely to be even more pessimistic.
The state still has some reserves, but the governor has indicated he is unwilling to use any of these funds to solve the upcoming budget crisis, according to Trupin. The governor has also said he is unwilling to ask for new taxes and he won’t allow cuts to education programs.
Trupin says a lot of people believe this may be the crisis that will bring tax reform to the forefront. A committee of legislators and community members was established last year to study inequities in the state tax system. He says there’s also quite a bit of movement toward looking at the initiative process to decide if the system needs to be reformed.
Appleton says the Coalition for a Jewish Voice is in favor of taking a look at a state income tax because Washington’s tax system is currently one of the most regressive in the nation. “Everything we do here is based on a sales tax,” she says, adding that a sales tax is all right for the economy during economic boom times, but it’s never fair to the citizens. Washington is one of seven states without a state income tax. Appleton says the citizens of Washington are doubly penalized by the system because they cannot deduct sales tax from federal income tax, but they would be able to deduct state income tax from their federal taxes.
Both Trupin and Appleton agree that a number of programs that help the most vulnerable members of the Jewish community will be prime targets of budget cutting in Olympia this year.
The adult dental, vision and health care programs are programs that help clients of Jewish Family Service, the Seattle Association for the Jewish Disabled and the Kline Galland Center that have already been targeted for cuts next year. “We worked very hard last year to save vision and dental for the elderly. We’re going to fight those battles tenfold this year,” Appleton says.
Trupin says he also expects cuts in the General Assistance/Unemployable program that provides cash assistance to low-income adults who are unemployable due to mental, emotional or physical impairment. Clients at Jewish Family Service and residents of Council House could be affected.
Other likely targets are immigrant assistance programs, which provide services to prepare low-income immigrants for U.S. citizenship. Jewish Family Service’s Multi-Ethnic Center in Bellevue has clients who use programs funded by the state. State refugee services and that provide cash assistance and programs for legal immigrant families who are ineligible for the state welfare program could also be cut.
Appleton says she isn’t entirely pessimistic about the November election and the 2002 legislative session. The reaction of people to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks gave her some hope that citizens are starting to revise their feelings about government and taxes. “People are beginning to see that government isn’t just this bureaucratic blob out there, that it really does good things. It protects its citizens…I find it really hard that there are people who are going to overlook that,” Appleton says.