State cuts will hurt folks here

By Courtney Sherwood, Columbian freelance writer

Published:

 

Nobody knows when economic recovery will reach Clark County, but we can expect it to take longer because of the state’s huge budget hole.

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s plan to plug that two-year, $4.7 billion hole with wide-ranging spending cuts would cut pay for the 4,500 state workers who live in Clark County by $9 million — leaving them less able to spend at local businesses. It could cut some of their jobs altogether.

By eliminating health coverage for 66,000 poor people statewide, it would increase the burden on doctors and hospitals that already have too many patients who can’t pay their bills.

Cutting spending on public projects will directly affect the businesses that repair old buildings, build new roads and keep the state’s infrastructure intact.

Depending on your point of view, the state’s budget shortfall may have finally forced an honest discussion about reining in government that’s gotten too big. Or the cuts may be a tragic sign of the public’s inability to take care of its most vulnerable.

Either way, the cuts are coming.

Though the left-leaning Washington State Budget and Policy Center has suggested that the state can cut less by eliminating tax exemptions and closing loopholes — which add up to $6.5 billion — it’s very unlikely to get its wish. Voters have been clear that they don’t want new taxes, and the Legislature was listening.

“Taxes are not on the table,” said state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. “If somebody were looking for short-term solutions, if they felt that our budget problem was short-term, they might want to raise money quickly. But we have to have a long-run plan.”

If we’re thinking long-run, then we can all breathe a sigh of relief. The economy will eventually recover.

A number of companies — among them PeaceHealth, RS Medical, BHP Billiton, Linear Technology, and Farwest Steel — have announced plans to expand in Clark County between 2012 and 2014, and could bring close to 1,000 new or relocated jobs. SEH America and Fisher Investments, also both contemplating expansions, could hire hundreds.

As companies grow and hire, eventually — perhaps three or five years off — the state’s tax collections will return to familiar levels. Because of cuts being made to pensions and benefit costs now, the state may even be able to do more with less money, in the long run.

But because of the coming budget cuts, it will take longer before private-sector growth can lift us out of our short-run economic doldrums.

In the meantime, there may not be much we can do.

Folks who serve the poor are looking for ways to reach out to the long-term unemployed. But people want jobs, not a handout. Business leaders want to do what they can to help maintain strong local schools. But mentoring and internships don’t address overcrowded classrooms.

If Gregoire’s proposed cuts go through, we should all pay close attention to the new reality.

The state Legislature is unlikely to get the two-thirds majority it needs to raise taxes, but it may ask voters to step in where it can’t act. This November voters said no to taxes. It will be interesting to see how we feel by late 2011.

Courtney Sherwood is The Columbian’s business and features editor. Reach her at 360-735-4561 or courtney.sherwood@columbian.com.