"This isn't the budget any of us would have written, given the choice," weaseled state house Ways and Means Committee chair Ross Hunter (D-Medina), raising philosophical questions about whether state legislators have free will. Faced with a recession-exacerbated $5.5 billion budget shortfall, and no federal stimulus money this time around to bail them out, Democratic majorities in the state house and senate apparently felt they had no choice but to produce a suspiciously Republican-looking all-cuts budget.
If he didn't have a choice, then, um... why the fuck did it take so long? I mean, if this was the only budget that could've possibly been written, then there should have been no need for extending the legislative session for an extra month, right? Of course Hunter and the rest of his colleagues had a choice. They had plenty of choices. They could've chosen to soften the blow by eliminating tax breaks for out-of-state banks or any number of other unproductive tax "preferences."
But here's what we got instead:
Under a budget passed by a Democratic majority, class sizes will grow, teacher salaries will shrink, college tuition will skyrocket, and health insurance for some of our state's poorest and most vulnerable families will become either unaffordable or unavailable. The legislature slashed $1.6 billion from K–12 education, $620 million from public colleges and universities, $129 million from the Basic Health plan for low-income adults, $179 million from the disabled, $97 million from seniors, and on and on and on. Thousands of state workers will lose their jobs. Those remaining will see their wages reduced through forced furloughs, higher health insurance premiums, and wage cuts.
"I commend the work of our lawmakers," kvelled Governor Chris Gregoire in a statement about the budget. She rubbed more salt into budget wounds by blithely reinforcing the Republicans' central fiscal meme, adding, "We developed that balanced budget with no new revenue."
Yes, not a single tax loophole or exemption will be eliminated, not a single tax raised—and there will be no revenue package referred to the ballot. In fact, the only substantive piece of new revenue will be $67 million to offset cuts to state parks, raised using a $30 per vehicle annual "Discover Pass" now required to use all state wildlife and recreation land—a user fee that, like the bulk of the cuts, burdens Washington's lowest-income families the most.
"I wish we did raise taxes," state senate Ways and Means Committee chair Ed Murray (D-Seattle) laments, "but we didn't have the votes." Not even the simple majority necessary to refer a tax package to the ballot? According to Murray, five "roadkill" senate Democrats—these are moderates who caucus with Dems but often vote with the GOP—threatened to cross the aisle to write a budget with the Republicans, essentially forcing the Democratic majority to almost totally cave. You know, what daily newspaper editorial boards like to call "bipartisanship."
In fact, if there were ever a clue as to how bad this budget is, it's how pleased Republicans seem to be with the result. "This budget agreement is truly a bipartisan one," chief senate Republican budget negotiator Joseph Zarelli (R-Ridgefield) said in announcing the deal. "It accomplishes what citizens expect from their elected officials—working together for the benefit of the people they represent." At least working together for the benefit of the people (and corporations) Republicans represent. Traditional Democratic voters, on the other hand, not so much.
"Republicans have learned that you actually have to be accountable to your base," explained an exasperated Adam Glickman, vice president of SEIU Healthcare 775NW. For example, cuts to "levy equalization," a program that sends hundreds of millions of dollars to small rural school districts, were never even on the table. "But the Democrats in Olympia seem consistently intent on opposing their base while pandering to people who hate them," bemoans Glickman, whose union represents 40,000 home health care workers.
Glickman fears the budget cuts will be "devastating" to low-income seniors and the disabled, forcing many of them into nursing homes, while pushing thousands of low-paid home health care workers "further into poverty." But he also cites a litany of other affronts to the Democratic base, including passage of a business-friendly workers' compensation bill just months after voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar measure, and the legislature's apparently enthusiastic embrace of antiteacher rhetoric and reforms.
"It's an insult to our profession," declares Seattle Education Association president Olga Addae, referring to the 1.9 percent pay cut the legislature imposed on teachers as a key part of the final budget compromise. "The Republicans believe that public education should live on a shoestring," Addae added.
In his own defense, Senator Murray argues that his caucus managed to save funding, if at greatly reduced levels, for Basic Health, Disability Lifeline, Apple Health for Kids, and Planned Parenthood, programs a Republican majority would have joyously eliminated in their entirety. But he admits this "all cuts, no tax" budget was also a "no win" one, and acknowledges that both the fiscal and political crises were years in the making. "We as Democrats have done a pretty piss-poor job of telling the story of why we need more taxes," Murray concedes.
The Service Employees International Union, teachers unions, and other traditional Democratic backers would probably agree that Democrats did a "piss-poor job." The question now remaining for the Dems is, having once again chosen to screw their base, will the base return the favor?