Bleak Outlook in Olympia

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Walking in under the Dome in Olympia is a contrast in sensations.  On the one hand, the mood is as frantic as a train station at rush hour and, on the other, it’s as intense as an emergency room on Friday night.  And, while lobbyists, legislators, spectators and supplicants scramble for face time, Native Americans gather in the Rotunda to the sound of chanting and drumming.

The legislators have been unbelievably stressed by twin budget traumas.  In the short term they have to trim hundreds of millions from this year’s budget. And, in the long term, they have to get started crafting a two-year budget that weathers the toughest years that Olympia has faced since the Great Depression.

Gov. Christine Gregoire addressed representatives of the state’s cities Wednesday noon at the annual Association of Washington Cities conference. She spoke about the state budget and the pain of trying to navigate uncharted waters of scarcity. She talked of the estimated six billion dollars the legislators must excise from previous lean budgets to provide for the unprecedented shortfall.  It’s a painful exercise.

Gov. Gregoire pointed out that about 60 percent of the budget – that spent on nondiscretionary programs such as public schools – is already set. There remains only the 40 percent percent discretionary spending that has to take in all expenses on health, social services, higher education and corrections. She said that she’d gotten the clear message from the voters in the last election that citizens are not willing to raise taxes.

Some of the prospects that she’s finding most unappealing or the need to look in two areas: one at pensions and the other at inflation and health care reform. She mentioned the prospect of collapsing 21 state agencies into nine and of charging for water rights and the use of state parks. She also said that she has experienced major pushback on her plans to look at forming regional ferry districts to pay for the state’s ferry system.

Her concern for education led her to discuss some other alternatives, such as looking at the 12th year of education as a possible place to consolidate, particularly if students can complete that year taking advanced placement classes.  She had a catchy slogan: “Complete to compete.”

She also said that savings could be realized through consolidating the state’s education system, rather than having education delivered in silos with separate governing boards.

Although she acknowledged that the Legislature is looking at such alternatives as sweeping the state’s liquor tax, admittedly something that would adversely impact local governments. In fact, it stands to cost Seattle as much as $700,000 in this year alone, $700,000 that already is part of the city’s 2011 budget. A sum that would have to be replaced by making deep cuts elsewhere in the city’s budget.

The governor, however, did have one line that drew applause from representatives of the state’s 281 cities.

She said – and let’s hope she can keep her word, that she would not approve measures that would affect the cities’ ability to provide services to their citizens.