In Our View: Prepare for the Pain

Nonprofit organizations see little hope as legislators wrestle with budget woes

Published:

 

On one level, it was a slick bit of pandering. And yet it was pragmatic.Gov. Jay Inslee came to Vancouver this week for a meeting with leaders of local nonprofit organizations, and in the process he highlighted a pro-active approach tempered by the bad news that is the reality of modern budget scenarios.

You know, a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

According to a report in The Columbian by Scott Hewitt, the governor spelled out what is happening in Olympia and how it will impact local agencies that provide social services. From Inslee's perspective, the Governor's office and the state House are largely in agreement on a budget proposal that focuses on closing tax loopholes for the wealthy; the state Senate, on the other hand, has proposed steep cuts to social services, including programs addressing poverty, health care and senior support.

With that chasm in mind, the Legislature will reconvene May 13 for a special session designed to pass a budget for the 2013-15 biennium.

"We have a debate going on," Inslee said. "It seems to me you have an opportunity to share some information. These are real things to real people."

That was the pragmatic nature of the governor's message. Nonprofit organizations throughout the state deliver important services to people in need, and those who care about such services should, indeed, be encouraged to contact their representatives in order to ensure their stories are heard. Putting a human face on the services that are offered make it that much more difficult for legislators to slash programs.

But the reality is much more difficult than telling individual stories. The reality is that the state has a budget crisis, and cuts will have to be made. The state Supreme Court has mandated that public education be fully funded, and that leaves lawmakers holding a bill for something in the neighborhood of $1 billion.

According to the state government website, the 2011-13 biennium budget of $61.7 billion was a drastic reduction from the 2009-11 total of $70.7 billion. More cuts are likely in upcoming budgets, and that was prior to the mandate on K-12 education.

Which brings us to the pandering portion of Inslee's informal discussion: "We've been cutting these things for four years. I'm not cutting anymore."

That is what we would expect any politician to say to a group of leaders from nonprofit organizations, yet it doesn't meld with reality. The fact is that times are tough, the Legislature must figure out how to pay for education, and the taxpayers are all tapped out.

According to USGovernmentSpending.com, in 2013 the State of Washington budget reflects 19.35 percent of the state's Gross State Product — or all the money generated in Washington. That is almost exactly the same as the national average of 19.18 percent (not including federal spending), and it is a reasonable burden for taxpayers to assume. But we can't dig any deeper into our pockets.

That leaves the governor and taxpayers and those who provide social services with a difficult predicament. As Inslee said about the education-funding mandate, speaking in a manner that resonated with the service providers, "It's very difficult to educate a hungry, homeless, sick child." We agree. And we agree that providing help for those in need requires a multi-pronged approach. But unless the Legislature can unearth some sort of magical budget wizardry, the results are going to be painful.