OLYMPIA — Washington agencies wrestling with budget reductions have managed to save an additional $100 million a year beyond the cuts mandated by the Legislature.
The surplus cash has provided a boost to the state as revenues have been slow to recover from the recession. Agencies are typically supposed to get back some of the savings as an incentive to control spending, but lawmakers have been seizing the extra dollars to put back into the general fund.
Those so-called reversions accounted for 15 percent of the $480 million budget adjustments that lawmakers made during the special session.
“It’s super helpful,” said House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt, who is still pushing for more efficiency and accountability in state government. “It gives you more flexibility.”
DeBolt was concerned about whether agencies are unnecessarily padding their budgets by requesting money they don’t need, but he said he’s been pleased to see how some agencies have embraced ways to be more efficient.
The statewide savings have grown dramatically since the start of the recession. Between 2000 and 2006, agencies had an average of $28 million in leftovers annually. They’ve averaged $100 million over the past three years, including $105 million in fiscal year 2011.
The largest returns have come from the massive Department of Social and Health Services, which sent back some $55 million in 2011. That’s only a small percentage of the agency’s budget, but it’s a larger number than in past years.
Stan Marshburn, deputy director at the state Office of Financial Management, said managers across state government know the budget situation and are guarding expenditures and being conservative.
“It’s important that people are being tight and we’re generating savings in years when we have no resources,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter, a leading budget writer, said he suspects some of the savings came because lawmakers were conservative in estimates for how much policy reductions would save. Agencies said some of the savings came because of demands by Gov. Chris Gregoire for limited spending and concerns that budgets would get cut even further. Many staff vacancies went unfilled.
Department of Revenue officials managed to return about $3.4 million in 2011 — roughly 3 percent of the agency’s budget. Spokesman Mike Gowrylow said officials have cut back on travel, training, technology upgrades, printing and postage. Some staff members who have departed haven’t been replaced.
There have been consequences. Gowrylow said the agency is likely to miss performance goals, is less able to handle tax inquiries from the public and is short on workers who provide guidance to state lawmakers on bills that may have revenue impacts.
“We’ve cut back everywhere we think we can cut back without impacting revenue collections,” Gowrylow said.