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26th District legislators discuss state's budget challenges
The same day the state Supreme Court issued a crucial ruling on public education funding that's likely to have a major impact on state budget decisions, the three legislators who represent the 26th District came to Port Orchard to discuss the daunting budget crisis lawmakers will tackle when their 2012 session starts next week.
"On top of balancing the budget, we have to figure out how to add money to fulfill that constitutional duty," Rep. Larry Seaquist said, referring to the Supreme Court's ruling that the state is not adequately funding basic education as required in the state constitution.
The court, in a 7-2 ruling upholding a lower court decision, did not require state government to take any specific action, but put the onus on the Legislature to show substantial progress by 2018 in implementing the education reforms in a bill passed in 2009.
Seaquist, D-Tacoma, Rep. Jan Angel, R-Port Orchard, and Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, spoke at a reception Thursday evening hosted by the Port Orchard Chamber of Commerce.
All three of them praised the court ruling and said it should help protect K-12 education from further cuts as the Legislature grapples with how to close the latest budget shortfall of $1.4 billion for the 2011-13 biennium.
Angel told the crowd she is a strong supporter of levy equalization funding, which has been targeted for possible reduction or elimination in budget-cutting discussions.
"I hope the ruling that came down today says loud and clear, 'Thou shalt not cut education any further,'" she said.
While the ruling applies to K-12 education funding, the legislators also stressed the importance of maintaining and even increasing state funding for higher education.
The state has "an economic imperative to make an investment in education," Kilmer said.
He added that it's impossible to have "a 21st-century economic development strategy with a 1980s level of higher education funding."
One problem Seaquist cited is a shortage of workers in the state who have the skills required for thousands of available jobs that pay well. He supports expanding community college programs such as those offered at Olympic College in Bremerton.
The legislators mentioned but did not endorse Gov. Chris Gregoire's plan for a temporary half-cent sales tax increase to offset some of the drastic cuts that would be required close the budget gap without any new revenue.
Seaquist told the Chamber crowd that the Legislature needs to make strategic cuts because the state is facing long-term financial problems. He also said that if lawmakers are going to ask voters for more money, "it shouldn't be until we finish downsizing state government."
And no matter what cuts are made this session to close a budget gap created by increased demand for state services at the same time revenues continue to decline, Kilmer said what's needed most is to find ways to stimulate economic development and create more jobs.
"The way the state will get out of this budget problem in the long haul is getting people back to work," he said.