Like average juveniles whose misbehavior escaped the playground monitor's ire, Washington and Oregon have enjoyed a self-satisfied smirk at California's expense the past couple years as the Golden State has spiraled downward into the government equivalent of juvie prison.
Now, the long arm of economic laws and citizen initiatives has caught up with the Pacific Northwest. The two states are on the run. The relevant metaphor may be the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, scrambling to stay one step ahead of an encircling murderous posse.
The news is especially grim here in Washington.
Thursday's state revenue forecast added another $385 million to the hole in the current year's state budget, which runs through June 2011. And the shortfall in the next two-year cycle now stands at $5.7 billion out of a $33 billion general fund.
Even if the state totally shuts down the departments of fish and wildlife, ecology and natural resources for the remaining seven months of the fiscal year, that would only save $250 million - or $135 million short of what will be needed. Legislators expect to be called into special session in early December to decide on near-term cuts. It's dreadful to consider what will be required.
Legislators interviewed last week said they think Naselle Youth Camp - a vital source of jobs and payroll-based spending throughout Pacific and Clatsop counties - should be safe for now.
That's the only good news. Large and important parts of Washington state government are about to be dismantled, probably including essential social safety nets like the Basic Health Plan and Disability Lifeline. School districts are going to get hammered. College tuition will increase dramatically. And the list goes on...
Legislators probably will try to propose adding back some funding by giving voters a direct vote on specific programs. Considering anti-tax sentiments, anything of this kind will need to be very well presented.
Oregon, with the smallest economy of the three mainland West Coast states, arguably is in the best shape. Its state economist said Friday that the free fall in Oregon's economy appears to have leveled out. But this "good news" is awfully tenuous. For a change, mostly due to accounting changes, Oregon took in about $100 million in tax revenue more than it expected to in September.
Make no mistake, however -Oregon lawmakers will have to slice and dice state programs when they meet in January. The revenue forecast has dropped another $272 million for the next two-year budget cycle, bringing the overall shortfall to $3.5 billion. On top of past cuts, these may reduce government services including K-12 education by another 25 percent. School-funding cuts on this scale would be like axing 40 classroom days per year, according to Superintendent of Public Instruction Susan Castillo.
In both states, many say they want less government. The next several years will give us a first-hand look at what this is like, with much secondary damage as reduced government spending ricochets through the private sector.
Billions were cut in the last biennium and a lot of people didn't really notice the effects on a personal level. They will this time. As Rep. Dean Takko told the Observer, "We're going to be sawing into bone - we've already cut the fat and the meat."