In Our View: Wrangling Over Budget

Order for agencies to study 15% cut is either grandstanding or good policy

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The primary election is Aug. 5, the general election is Nov. 4, and the Legislature convenes in January. But the state's political players are in midseason form, complete with wrangling over budgets, concern over revenue forecasts, and accusations of grandstanding.

Gov. Jay Inslee recently instructed state agency leaders to devise projections for how they would cut 15 percent from their department budgets for the 2015-17 budget cycle. The cuts could hit only unprotected programs, meaning that items such as K-12 education, state employee pensions, debt service, and federally mandated Medicaid payments would not be touched. But higher education and corrections, among other items, could face budget challenges.

"I would imagine that is more than folks are going to take," state budget director David Schumacher said of the 15 percent. "But one, if the economy gets worse, it's possible. And two, if there are places we decide we can't even cut near 7 or 8 percent for some reason, you have to do bigger cuts in other areas. We are trying to build a map for the governor to see what it would take to get there and see if he can accept those."

By law, Inslee must present a budget proposal in December. That proposal will be tweaked and twisted and twirled by lawmakers beginning in January, but the original proposal must fit within the parameters of existing revenue sources without presuming potential increases. In spite of that, the budget exercise has some critics working up a sweat. "It's Jay Inslee fearmongering," Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville told The Olympian. "The scenario (for cuts) really doesn't exist with the four-year balanced budget and revenue forecast. But it's great fearmongering by the governor."

The assertion is that the governor is sounding a call to lure constituents to the ballot box for this year's elections. If people fear that a state program or department dear to their heart might be facing a 15 percent budget cut, voters might be more likely to express their preferences at the polls. As Schumacher said, "The sad fact is that to balance this with all cuts is going to mean real cuts to people dependent on services."

Yet the budgeting process is far too complex to be whitewashed with the "politics" brush. Consider:

• The most recent state revenue forecast projects an increase as the tax base expands due to an improving economy. An updated forecast is scheduled to be released in November, and it could alter the outlook again.

• A couple huge bills could come due in 2015. The Legislature has failed over the past two years to provide funding for transportation projects, and the need is becoming dire. And lawmakers must come up with between $1 billion and $3 billion for the next biennium to adequately fund K-12 education as mandated by the state Supreme Court.

In short, next year's budget process is going to be difficult enough for lawmakers, which means that prioritizing cuts could be a valuable exercise. As Jason Mercier of the conservative Washington Policy Center writes: "If agencies actually follow these instructions and don't use 'Washington Monument' ploys, this could provide valuable insight into how they rank their activities and what they believe to be low versus high priorities."

That is the bottom line for determining the bottom line when it comes to budgeting. The teams for the budget battle won't be drawn up for a couple months yet, but the games have already begun.