Cameron Peters charts the path into – and out of – Washington state’s budget morass

February 3, 2011 | Aaron Keating

When you’re lost, it’s best to figure out where you are before trying to get to where you want to go. So if you’re finding it difficult to get a clear handle on what’s going on with the state budget, try reading these two succinct and accessible columns by Cameron Peters in the Kitsap Sun.

Peters’ first column, written just after the November 2010 elections, examines the campaign rhetoric surrounding the state budget. He finds much of it wanting:

Locally, the refrain from nearly all of the challengers for the state Legislature concerned government overspending. If only our representatives were more frugal and responsible, we wouldn’t have had a multi-billion-dollar gap to close for the 2009-2011 biennium budget. But is the assertion of overspending true? What evidence exists to support such a claim?

As it turns out, there is no significant evidence to support that claim. But there are three underlying factors that do explain the state’s current budget woes – and none of them have to do with spending. They are: inflation, population growth, and most importantly: a severe recession that caused a massive drop in state revenue. In other words, while the rhetoric about government spending may be loud, it rings hollow.

But combine those factors with November’s election results, writes Peters, and you have a recipe for an all cuts budget that will hit education, health care and human services – which make up most general fund expenditures.

And that is, unfortunately, exactly what has happened. As Peters writes in his second column, the true costs of those cuts are now becoming clear:

Those who believe that the state government was bloated and spending on programs unrelated to government’s perceived role should be pleased. Programs and commissions have been eliminated. Most departments have seen budget cuts. Personnel are being cut, positions consolidated.

In the end, balancing the budget may be a Pyrrhic victory. Our neediest citizens, devastated by a recession that was not their fault, will fall through the cracks without the support they need. More families will find themselves unable to send their kids to our state colleges. Our park lands and environmental resources will continue to be degraded without the ability to maintain and improve them. Schools will continue to have to do more with less.

Peters calls for a “21st century solution” for the state budget. That means examining the usefulness and necessity of the 500+ tax exemptions and preferences now on the books (which EOI has documented here and here). And it means changing the fundamentals of Washington’s tax structure, so the poorest residents of Washington no longer pay the highest percentage of their income in taxes, while the richest pay a tiny share.

Follow these links to read the full text of Peters’ columns:

Voters Want Services, But Don’t Want to Pay »

Seeking a 21st-century solution to today’s problems »

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Posted in State Economy, Tax and Budget

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