As King County Executive Ron Sims's imminent departure leaves the leadership of King County an open question, the fate of $10.5 million in county health-and-human-services programs is also up in the air. In November, Sims and the county council placed those programs in a "lifeboat," giving them enough money to last through June 2009.
At the time, county officials promised to spend those six months lobbying the state legislature for new funding sources and funding flexibility. In November, Larry Phillips, then chair of the county council, vowed, "When we tell the story, it will resonate across the state." Although Phillips now says he's "waiting for marching orders" from King County lobbyist Chuck Williams before heading to Olympia, state legislators say other county officials have already started making the rounds.
But their pleas could fall on deaf ears. Since the county's budget announcement, the state has experienced a growing budget crisis of its own; according to state senate majority leader Lisa Brown, the state's projected budget deficit could be $7 billion or higher when the state forecast council releases its projections next Thursday, February 19. "This is an unprecedented situation," Brown says. That makes it less likely that some of the counties' proposals—such as new authority to levy a utility tax on unincorporated areas—will move forward. "The utility tax may be more of an uphill battle," acknowledges Eric Johnson, director of the Washington State Association of Counties.
What's more likely to move forward quickly, county lobbyists and state legislators say, is anything that doesn't involve new taxes. That includes a proposal to allow King County's mental-health levy—a one-tenth of a cent sales tax earmarked for new programs—to pay for existing programs as well. It also includes a proposal to give counties more flexibility in how they spend other taxes.
"We're at a point where we can't pay for the services we already provide," Johnson says. Two pieces of legislation introduced by senators Debbie Regala (D-27) and Jim Hargrove (D-24), respectively, would give varying levels of flexibility. Meanwhile, Eastside representative Ross Hunter (D-48) has said he plans to unveil a similar proposal in the state house shortly, possibly as soon as later this week.
Without new funding or funding flexibility, county government as we know it is going to look very different in the coming years. Gone will be programs to prevent STDs, school-based dental screenings, childhood immunizations, family planning, and much more.
Johnson hopes it won't come to that. "This is a 105-day session, and we're only in day 20," he says. "We've still got a long ways to go."