Legislature must act now to curb budget deficit

Shelly Short
Special to The Miner

COVID-19 has challenged each and every one of us at every level. From businesses, to families and workers, no one has escaped the devastating effects of this pandemic. First and foremost, the coronavirus has taken the lives of too many Washingtonians. We grieve with the families whose loved ones were taken from them too soon. We are grateful to all of those on the frontline who have worked tirelessly – even putting themselves at risk – to get us through thus far.  Additionally, the mandated shutdown has significantly challenged our state’s thriving economy, leaving a $9 billion hole in state revenue over the next three years. To prevent a larger financial deficit in the future, our state Legislature must act right now.

Acting now is especially important given the nearly $1 billion of new policy spending set to take effect July 1.  By calling the legislature back into a special session now, lawmakers have the opportunity to make budget cuts before they even begin. Unfortunately, our governor has made no indication that this is a priority. Additionally, some Democrats in Olympia are seizing this opportunity to propose new taxes. This pandemic jeopardized entirely too many of our small businesses and families across our state, who are severely suffering. We simply cannot tax our way out of this by adding a heavier burden to our state’s residents.

Washington state adopts budgets on a biennial basis, meaning we have a 2-year budget cycle. During the Great Recession, our state took in less money in the 2009-2011 biennium than it previously had in the 2007-2009 biennium. This is not the problem we face today. Our state has more revenue now than we did two years ago; the difference now is state spending has grown exponentially. On the final day of the 2020 legislative session, lawmakers passed the supplemental operating budget that included a 19 percent growth in spending from the previous two years due in part to 13 new tax increases costing taxpayers billions! It is now very clear that this rate of spending is not sustainable and cannot continue.

Due to our current economic situation, the governor has required state agencies to submit proposed 15 percent across-the-board cuts. These severe cuts are a blunt and crude instrument. Under state law, the governor may only reduce agency budgets by an equal percentage, whereas the Legislature can come in and act with more precision and care. This further demonstrates the need for the Legislature to intervene.

The governor should convene the Legislature immediately in order to forgo the scheduled new spending rather than resort later to cutting into vital services that Washingtonians currently rely upon. For every month of delayed action, deeper cuts will be needed to achieve the same level of savings. Delaying action is simply irresponsible and may ultimately hurt the most vulnerable among us. Calling a special session as soon as possible is the most responsible path forward.