Washington lawmakers will spend the next month trying to close a $1.4 billion budget gap for the 2011-2013 biennium just seven months after making $4.6 billion in cuts.
The session started Nov. 28 with legislators being updated on the lowered state revenue forecasts causing the gap.
“Congressional gridlock, the European debt crisis and high unemployment continue to take their toll on consumer confidence and our state’s economy,” Gov. Christine Gregoire said in a news statement. “Once again, we are facing a budget shortfall and once again I’m calling the Legislature back into special session to address the state’s budget. My only option is across-the-board cuts and that option is unacceptable. Solving this budget crisis will require the Legislature to act.”
State Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, said the current state budget is at the per-capita spending levels of 1984, despite a rise in population and increased needs for things such as elderly assistance and reduced-price lunches for children.
Most of the cuts proposed to close the gap are in the social services and educational arenas. Rural hospitals also are likely to be hit hard, he said.
In describing how big a $1.4 billion gap is, Tharinger said that if the state closed every community college until the end of the biennium, it still would only save a quarter of what is needed. Looking at revenue will be important to stop some of the proposed cuts, he said.
“I think it’s a question of the kind of communities we want to live in … and what we’re willing to pay,” he said.
Linda Barnfather, legislative assistant to Rep. Kevin Van De Wege, D-Sequim, said legislators will hear the governor’s budget with the proposed cuts then work through Dec. 27 to pass a balanced budget.
Legislators will return for a regular session Jan. 9, she said.
Gregoire said she wants the regular session to focus on policy bills to support job creation and economic growth.
“Let’s get this budget done right in one swoop well before Christmas and then turn our focus to supporting jobs and growing our economy,” she said.
Tharinger said the budget outlook continues to change with updated revenue projections and discussions on sales tax proposals and program cuts.
“In talking to other legislators and people who have been in Olympia longer than I have, they’ve never seen the situation as fluid as it is now,” he said. “Maybe people will get out of their ideological ruts and find some pragmatic solution to move the state forward.”
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