"Budget fight will be tough, Phil says"
June 9, 2008 · Updated 3:34 PM
"Because the voters are sending conflicting and unrealistic messages, an already divided state Legislature faces a difficult and lengthy session, Bainbridge Island's resident legislator, Rep. Phil Rockefeller, says.The voters have expanded the state's obligations, but at the same time reduced our means, the Democrat Rockefeller said, calling the budget the overwhelming issue facing the Legislature in the session under way this week in Olympia.The conflicting directives come from voter initiatives, passed since the last general legislative session in 1999.On the one hand, voters demanded that the state spend more money on K-12 education, mandating annual cost-of-living raises for teachers and dedicating much of the state surplus to efforts aimed at reducing class size.On the other hand, the voters knocked out the Motor Vehicle Excise Tax in Initiative 695 and sharply limited the property tax in Initiative 722.With less money available, and some of that lesser amount already earmarked for schools, Rockefeller said the budgeting process will be a matter of allocating painful cutbacks all around. And it distresses him that the initiative process insulates the voters from that reality.There is hurt to be distributed, and the voters don't even have to acknowledge that possibility, he said.The majority of state spending is out of the legislature's control, he said. Spending on K-12 education accounts for 48 percent of the state budget, and is basically immune from legislative reduction.That spending is enrollment driven - something over which we have no control, he said. And our state Supreme Court has declared public education to be the paramount duty of the state, and has said that if you have a revenue shortfall, you cannot impose across-the-board spending cuts on the schools. Two other big chunks of state spending - 11 percent each - are for higher education and for prisons, Rockefeller said.We have capped higher-education enrollment in four-year schools, but have always had open enrollment at our community colleges, he said. Is that something we really want to change, particularly because people need more, not less, job training?He also wondered whether Washington citizens really want to control prison costs by limiting enrollment.Take those three categories of spending out, Rockefeller said, and you have only 30 percent of the budget left over to fund such critical services as transportation and health care.The long-term health-care providers in particular are asking for help, Rockefeller said.Those care providers need to hire adequate staff, but pay only minimum wage, and the work isn't that desirable, he said. The level of reimbursement provided by the state is so low that many of the facilities are already operating out of bankruptcy protection. If they can't keep staff, it's our parents who will suffer.Transportation is another area in which massive new investment - not cutbacks - is needed, Rockefeller said.The roads and bridges are falling apart, and the ferry system is struggling to maintain services.Contrary to what many voters apparently believe, Rockefeller does not think significant savings are possible through efficiencies.I am looking for ways to save money every day, he said. And I'm always open to suggestions. But it doesn't help to say things like 'cut administrative costs.' You always need some supervision, but even if we cut it all, we wouldn't save all that much money.Rockefeller hopes the Legislature will assemble a package of revenue measures to deal with transportation and perhaps health care, and submit the package to the voters.I am concerned about the absence of public discourse on trade-offs, he said. We need to ask the voters to really consider what kind of community we want. If viable roads, bridges and ferries are what we want, then we must pay for them. "