Two actions last week from Gov. Jay Inslee provided a glimpse into the future as Washington deals with the coronavirus outbreak. In summary, we’re in this for the long haul.
First, Inslee extended his stay-at-home order by at least one month. Now in place until early May, the directive has shuttered bars, restaurants and nonessential businesses while urging residents to remain home. The May 4 expiration date for the order might be extended again, with health officials stressing that avoiding contact with others is the most effective way to stem the spread of COVID-19.
But another action from Inslee provides even more insight to the impact the pandemic is having and will have on Washington. In signing a supplemental budget approved just last month by the Legislature, which adjourned as the virus was beginning to be felt in the state, the governor used a line-item veto to reject 147 spending programs.
The result is a reduction of $445 million from the supplemental budget approved by lawmakers, a painful but necessary cut as a recession takes hold. The supplemental budget added to the two-year operating budget approved last year, boosting spending for the current biennium to $53.5 billion. As David Schumacher, director of the Office of Financial Management, said: “At this point, we expect projected revenues for the next few years to fall by billions of dollars. The decline will likely be as bad as, if not worse than, what we saw during the Great Recession.”
For now, Inslee limited budget cuts to new or expanded programs rather than services already relied upon by Washington residents. But the governor and lawmakers acknowledge the likelihood of a special session being required before the Legislature is scheduled to convene in January.
“We made a decision of things that we believe could be deferred without injury to the people of Washington,” Inslee said. “We know that fairly shortly we’ll be back one way or another, and legislators will have a chance to deal with this issue.”
The vetoes do not mean that the programs involved are not needed. It simply is a matter of a stark new reality that has seen tax revenue plummet.
With Washington’s revenue stream being heavily dependent on sales tax, the temporary closure of businesses — and questions about how many of them will survive — cuts at the state’s ability to serve residents.
Those state-mandated closures have been necessary in an attempt to slow an unprecedented pandemic. But they are painful for business owners, employees, customers, vendors and, yes, state government.
The largest cut in Inslee’s slate of vetoes is $116 million in new spending through 2023 for school counselors in high-poverty school districts. There also was $50 million for state agencies to pursue policies to mitigate climate change, and $35 million to train K-12 paraeducators. With the state required to forecast a four-year balanced budget, those cuts cover programs through 2023.
Spared from the cuts — for now — are investments in new spending on health care and public safety, along with programs aimed at homelessness and affordable housing.
The long-term view of the state budget demonstrates the long-term devastation expected to result from the coronavirus outbreak. But it’s never too early to start looking ahead.
As Inslee said: “If we’re going to right our economic ship, we simply have to get through this pandemic. Once we get through this pandemic, then we can start rebuilding.”