Legislators lay out budget pain

Limited resources to ensure worrisome cuts to social program

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Advocates for the mentally ill, disabled people, seniors, abused children and other vulnerable groups heard little good news during a town hall hosted Saturday by Vancouver’s 49th District state legislators.

That’s because a new sheriff runs Olympia: voter-approved tax limits and tight rules that restrict lawmakers’ options to solve a nearly $5 billion, two-year budget deficit, sure to imperil countless social programs.

Legislators may soften some of the dire social services cutbacks spelled out in Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget plan. But scarce resources promise widespread pain, the audience was told.

“Please stay involved with us,” Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, told parents, caretakers and others who voiced fears and concern for nearly two hours in the Clark County Public Service Center hearing room.

“Please let us know where you think we can cut” with least damage to affected groups, Moeller said. “Because cuts will happen.”

Fellow Democrats Rep. Jim Jacks and Sen. Craig Pridemore said much the same.

Pridemore does find a positive development. The clampdown on potential revenue has pushed skittish Democratic Party majority leaders to address serious spending and program reforms after years of stalling, he said.

“I’ve only seen it in the last few months,” Pridemore said, as the severity and duration of Washington’s tax revenue decline has become more apparent.

He gets a closer view than most, as chairman of the state’s revenue forecast council.

There finally is “real recognition” of long-term shortfalls and overreach of state programs proven to be unsustainable — expansion of children’s health benefits and all-day kindergarten, to name two — he said.

Pridemore chafes at how tax-limit warrior Tim Eyman and his allies can dodge hard questions over where to cut state funding and identify losers under new limits. That grim chore falls to legislators, he said.

“One thing that bothers me about budget-by-initiative is that it deals with only one side,” he said.

But Pridemore vowed to make sure lawmakers don’t void rules set by Eyman’s I-1053, as they did last year with his similar I-960.

He reads 66 percent support for I-1053 from District 49 voters in November as a clear mandate, he said. It’s a far cry from razor-thin local support for I-960, which he later helped to repeal in the Senate, he said.

Pridemore said he hopes Eyman keeps a pledge to introduce a tax-limit initiative with each new budget cycle.

“That ensures to me that voters will tell me every two years (whether) they’re okay with (spending) cuts” under the limits, he said.

Moeller said he believes Eyman’s latest measure is not constitutional, but concedes that tax limits will drive the agenda in Olympia this year.

Moeller criticized Republicans for unwillingness to examine questionable business tax breaks to unearth new state revenue. (Such a move now requires a two-thirds majority, which the Democrats lack in both the House and Senate.)

“Not everybody is coming to the table to help pull us along,” Moeller said.

Not all of Saturday’s crowd were of Democratic or liberal persuasion, meanwhile.

Critics of the Columbia River Crossing project, state-funded abortion services and alleged lax control of illegal residents took exception, raising some sparks and eyebrows.

Pridemore said he supports the current CRC plan. He also said a planned vote on C-Tran taxes to operate a Clark County light rail extension should be decisive.

Should the measure fail, he “would be upset” if backers stage a second try in a smaller, specially drawn voting area, he said.

Jacks asserted that studies show lower operating costs for light rail, making it more efficient for high-capacity travel than new bus service .

And Moeller got a final word on rising health care costs, blamed by some on children of undocumented residents: “I have to say … there’s no such thing as an illegal child. Period,” he said.