OLYMPIA– In laying out the case for a possible tax increase, Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire stood by a pie chart and talked about how the state had already cut $10.5 billion since 2008.
That number is only true if you stretch the interpretation of what a budget cut is.
Even if her latest proposed budget reductions of $1.7 billion go through, Washington is still scheduled to spend about $30 billion in its current general fund budget, more than the last budget cycle and only $1.5 billion less than the peak in the 2007-09 budget. Her much bigger calculation comes because of how budget writers view projected growth in government — especially at a time when more people are relying on its services as a safety net.
Many of the hundreds of cuts Gregoire and other Democrats have tallied are simply automatic spending increases that didn’t end up happening. For example, because the state twice suspended automatic cost-of-living adjustments for education employees, budgeters counted it as a “cut” of $682 million. Another “cut” of $344 million is counted because it stopped regular cost-of-living increases for some pensioners.
The $10.5 billion number also includes more than $1 billion dollars that were cut from higher education, but much of that money is still coming in a different way because lawmakers hiked tuition rates to offset the reductions. This year, the state halted new entrants to the Basic Health Plan for low-income residents and counted that as a savings of $130 million.
Some of the other numbers are even more curious. Budget leaders counted a $128 million cut for delaying an education apportionment payment, but the payment was still eventually made. They counted a $69 million cut from state parks, but didn’t take into account that the state filled that void by creating a new fee for park users. They booked another $440 million for an actuarial change in pensions.
While the claim for $10.5 billion cuts may be a stretch, Gregoire did accurately portray a long-term slide in state revenue when accounting for personal income and population. In 1995, the first year comparable information is available, the state brought in almost 7 cents for every dollar of personal income in Washington. That has dropped to less than 5 cents, according to state data.
And the state has made a variety of substantial cuts, closing three prisons, reducing the state workforce by about 7 percent and cutting key social services. Gregoire proposes to cut even deeper, reducing the length of the school year, eliminating some social programs and releasing prisoners early.
Gregoire’s tax proposal would ask voters for a half-penny increase in the state sales tax, bringing in nearly $500 million per year to counterbalance some of the cuts — particularly in education.
Republicans say there is more work to be done on reforming state government.
AP Writer Mike Baker can be reached at http://twitter.com/MikeBakerAP