Its impossible to tell whether Washington state citizens are more pleased, resigned or unhappy about the Legislatures budget decisions. Most of us havent really paid attention, too busy figuring how to pay our own bills to worry about what our elected leaders are cutting.
Many state residents will be taken completely by surprise when the Legislatures actions begin to touch our lives. Some of these impacts will become apparent within a few weeks or when school resumes this fall, while others will be like landmines that dont explode until life carries your own family down some previously unexplored path.
You may not notice much difference if you happen to have a steady paycheck, employer-provided health insurance, no kids in public school or at a state college, and no elderly parents on fixed incomes. Everyone else and thats the majority of us will be unhappy sooner or later about diminished options, higher costs and less help for family members and neighbors in need.
Its safe to say that most all of this was driven by the recession, which is slowly relaxing its grip on the private sector but continues to deeply hurt state revenues. Washingtons appallingly regressive tax system, which inflicts an over-sized burden on those least able to afford it, bears a lot of the blame. Citizens had a chance to start fixing it by instituting a tax on the wealthy last year, but we opted to stick with the devil we know the sales tax instead of naively hoping a new income tax wouldnt gradually creep downward into the middle class.
It deserves to be noted that Washington voters repealed the Legislatures own effort in 2010 to produce new revenue. Most of us placed a higher priority on not taxing candy and softdrinks than on government services.
Republican legislators, and presumably many citizens, are quite pleased that the states current hard times are forcing a wholesale rewriting of our social service and education commitments. GOP lawmakers have been saying for years that the state was getting in over its head. Considering how things have worked out, they obviously had a point.
The Democratic block, constrained by anemic tax receipts, voter unwillingness and conservative state senators including Brian Hatfield of Raymond, ended up enacting a virtually all-cuts budget. Thats what most observers considered probable from the regular sessions start in January, so the main mystery is why it also took an expensive 30-day special session to finally arrive at that result.
The countervailing argument to all cuts is that states can and do define themselves by the decisions they make and the promises they keep. Circumstances change, of course, but $1.6 billion in the Legislatures cuts are to K-12 education largely spending that was mandated by voters only a handful of years ago. Is our commitment to our own children really this fickle?
Another $620 million is being hacked out of university and college budgets, coupled with tuition hikes of about one-third more at universities and one-quarter more at colleges over the next two years. There will be more financial help given to aid middle- and low-income students, but higher costs will undoubtedly push some college plans off the cliff forever. Is this smart in a state that lives and dies by high-tech exports?
The state is also walking away from or dramatically downsizing its stake in everything from helping local hospitals cover the expense of caring for the uninsured, to promoting tourism. Disability Lifeline, which provided permanently unemployable people with a little cash assistance was eliminated.
Taxpayers are stressed and inclined to say no to everything until the economy returns more to normal. But we really have only ourselves to blame if if we dont like the results.