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COMMENTS | Senator Nathan Schlicher
For over 140 days my colleagues and I have been working in Olympia to craft a budget that reflects the values of Washington state: growing a vibrant economy, investing in an education system that will prepare our children for the challenges of the future and supporting programs that assist the most vulnerable men and women in our state. After a 105-day regular session and two special sessions, I am relieved to say that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
Economic forecast shows reason for optimism
The June report to the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council contained welcome news: revenue and employment levels in Washington state are nearing pre-recession levels. The timing of this announcement could not have been better. For the last six months, the Legislature has been engaged in budget negotiations that threatened to bring Washington to the brink of its first ever government shut down. The news that state revenue is on the rise should hopefully motivate everyone in Olympia to get the budget done and not threaten this recovery with an unnecessary shutdown.
Combined with last week’s agreement to support the Education Legacy Trust Fund by closing the Estate Tax Loophle (Bracken Court Case Decision) and a reduction in caseloads, Washington should see an increase in ongoing revenue of roughly $360 million. Since the start of the Great Recession, the Legislature has been forced to cut billions of dollars from budget after budget, reducing our ability to properly educate our children, care for the needy and support families with reliable healthcare. I am hopeful that this week’s news signals a departure from that trend and a stop to the cycle of taking from these important systems and instead grow them so they are once again the reliable supports for our state’s growth and prosperity.
Most importantly, this news shows that the state is continuing the recovery from the dark days of 2008. Upticks in the housing and construction markets and small improvements in the state’s sales tax collection are the buoys of this recovery and while we must be wary of outside influences in Europe, Asia and the federal government, the outlook for Washington is brightening.
Unemployment numbers continue to fall
Washington’s unemployment rate continued to fall in May, passing the significant milestone of dropping below 7 percent. The 6.8 percent unemployment rate marks the states lowest level since June of 2008, showing the resiliency of our state and the continuing recovery from the effects of the Great Recession.
In the days to come, my colleagues and I will debate and pass a capital construction budget, bringing millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs to each Washington county. In the 26th District, that will mean nearly $600,000 for continuing the development and improvement of the Port Orchard Bay Street Pedestrian Path and the Dekalb Pier projects. In addition, I hope to secure at least $800 thousand for the Marvin Williams Community Center in Bremerton. Working with Rep. Seaquist and Sen. Sharon Nelson, I am optimistic that negotiations with the House of Representatives will lead to that and other projects being funded and completed.
Time to triage the real emergencies in session
Following the release of the revenue forecast, I was pleased to hear members of the Senate majority caucus step back from their demand that the House pass certain non-budget related policy bills before tackling our constitutionally mandated budget responsibilities. The time for policy bills ended after the regular session. Our constituents expect and demand that we complete the budget and adjourn for the year.
You can imagine my disappointment when the Senate Rules committee met of Thursday and pulled five bills for floor debate, all of which make good business sense, but none of which have any relationship to the 2013-15 budget. The reality is that good policy dies every year, but that is the function of cutoff dates to focus our work at the end of session on the budget. While I voted for them originally and again yesterday because they were good pieces of legislation, their timing was poor.
This is about priorities and understanding what is important. These bills had their chance but were not approved in time to be signed into law. In the meantime, we have advanced to the edge of the fiscal cliff and face the possibility of a government shutdown – the first in Washington’s history. We have days to reach agreement on a budget and I hope that everyone will focus on that goal of compromise and completion of our work.
Stepping back from the brink
While the news that we have received over the past week has given us some reason for optimism, we still do not have a final agreement on a budget. On Thursday, the governor’s office gave us a sobering reminder of the weight of our responsibility. Until a budget is approved, the state will continue to prepare for the possibility of a state government shutdown. While the preparations will spare many critical areas like transportation (covered under the separately passed transportation budget), the impacts to our district and our state would be catastrophic.
Without a budget on June 30, 34 government agencies will totally shut down and 24 will partially shut down. Over a quarter of the state’s corrections officers would be laid off. Thousands more state workers will no longer receive a paycheck. Less money in bank accounts means less money flowing into family owned businesses at the height of the summer months. Patrons of state parks will find closed signs at the park entrances. Surrounding communities will see a drop in traffic through their towns and their businesses. Men and women who suffer a workplace injury will not be able to file for compensation for time lost.
It continues to be a mystery to me how the Legislature can play chicken with a shut down that would be devastating for our state’s economy and the people of Washington. We were sent here to lead our state forward, not over a cliff. I have been and continue to be willing to work with any member of any party in the House or Senate who is committed to working together to keep Washington going. We have real responsibilities before us that rise above partisan ideologies. If you hold fast to a party line, you might as well hold onto the rails of a sinking ship. In the end, compromise and the willingness to work together are the only solutions to very real threat that we face. Inaction is not an option.