Washington State Legislature
It just wouldnt be New Years without some reflections
and predictions! I like to think that we can learn from
what has happened and use that knowledge to shape what is
to come. Id like to think that Im just
not sure I believe it. Especially, many would tell us, in
government where nothing seems ever to change. But we did
make some very important changes during 2002, changes that
will make life a little easier for residents of Whatcom
County and the state.
When we have a huge shortfall in the state budget, as we did last year and as we are facing again this year, all focus seems to be on fiscal matters. Every proposal, every idea must first pass the Does it spend money? test and, if the answer is yes, it is immediately discarded. In many cases this is a bad test since some of these programs would be tremendously beneficial now and will save lots of money and grief down the road. But we cant spend money we dont have, so no new ideas were or will be considered unless they are without a dollar price tag. This will be true in 2003 more that it was in 2002.
During the campaign season, we always hear lots of people say the state should have a balanced budget. It is always balanced because it is mandated in our Constitution. We can only consider current revenues and money in hand and it has to be done by June 30. As we go through the state budget deliberations that have already started, it is important to realize that the cuts that must be made will be huge and hurtful. They will cause damage literally for generations to come. It may be the legislators fault because we tried to protect the public from this damage for as long as we could. It turned out to be a poor decision, but many of my colleagues were afraid the public would decide we were just being retaliatory. Believe me, there is no percentage in legislators being retaliatory we wouldnt get anything for it but more grief, and we actually are there to do the best we can within the limits that Washingtonians have provided us.
Our solution, since the passage of I-695 and subsequent initiatives, has been to patch things up and hope for better times. Weve had a lot of criticism for this especially the decision to borrow a portion of the tobacco settlement to provide health and human services. There are no more patches and there is nothing left to borrow. This is the year it all comes home to roost. We had better remember we are all in this together and we all have a lot to lose. The legislature will need all they help they can get from their constituents and I hope you will all play an active part. Call, email or write your legislators and let them know what you think is the best solution. Tell them where the cuts should be made and be specific. If you are willing to do without a state service, let them know.
The governor and the legislature are both looking for efficiencies and have been performing audits for many, many years. We have found large savings and the search will continue. Weve had requests for more audits and duplications of audits already done, and I have two cautions on this. First, these performance audits cost a lot of money. Second, they take about two years to complete. So they may be useful in the budget negotiations for 2005, but they wont do a thing for the problem this year. I have been a part of the performance audit team for six years and we have had great success. I recommend we let them continue to do the audits and find the savings. They are professionally trained to do performance audits and they are scrupulously non-partisan.
Much of the state spending is mandated for us and we have no choice. Really the only discretionary areas are in health and human services and this is where the cuts hurt the most. I had a call from a woman this past year who told me she is not mentally ill and none of her family members are mentally ill, and she didnt see why her tax dollars had to go to help mentally ill people. That was probably the most frightening call I received in all my years in the legislature. When we get to the point where we think every man for himself, we have lost what this country stands for. And not just in government, but in every major religion in the world, we are required to help the less fortunate. Do we, as a state, really want to abdicate this responsibility?
As a practical matter, our communities are safer and our programs are less expensive if we help people out when they need it. If we provide transportation for the developmentally disabled so they can get to work, they are happy, their employers have great employees, and people who used to require public assistance now pay taxes. Yet both last year and this year, this is a proposed budget cut. Another is to no longer provide medical insurance for low-income people. This is a major cost to the state and we could really save a lot of money. But the likelihood is that we would pay more in the end. These individuals who couldnt see a doctor are going to let their conditions deteriorate until they must receive medical attention and theyll go to the emergency room. The hospital cannot require payment before they treat people, so often the hospitals end up absorbing the costs. And then what happens? When you or I go to the hospital, we will pay very high rates because the hospital has to get the money from somewhere. Were paying the bill, its just out of another pocket.
If we dont take care of our public schools, community and technical colleges, universities and research universities, will we have the educated workforce that has attracted companies like Microsoft? If we dont do something about our transportation systems, are the companies who rely on inventory deliveries going to move out of state? In Washington, where one of every five jobs is based on trade, are we going to lose our trade advantage because shipments cant get to and from our ports? At a time when we need more, we are going to have even less. What are the answers?
Last year we instituted drug courts statewide a program that has been in Whatcom County for years and operates very successfully. The idea is to take the low-level offenders, work with them, and get them treatment. This frees up court time to hear other, more pressing cases, and it saves a ton of money. The cost of incarceration is a very real burden to the state. We want to put more and more people in jail, but we dont want to build any more prisons or hire any more prison staff. Drug courts are better for the individuals and for the community, and they save money. These are the kinds of efficiencies we need completely new ways to do things. If you have ideas, your legislators would love to hear from you.
Its a difficult job to sit in Olympia, talking with teachers, higher ed employees, mental health workers, parents of developmentally disabled children, people who cant provide a home for their families and tell them we are cutting a program they desperately need. In many ways, Im glad it wont be up to me and Im glad to be able to speak out without fearing a public backlash. I hope all of us will participate in the decision-making process, keeping all parts of our society in mind.
The time has come for us to quit thinking the government is the bad guy and politicians are all in it for some perceived gain. It is time for us to realize there is no free lunch, you cant get something for nothing, and you get what you pay for. It is time to realize that nothing in your home or your business costs as little as it did 10, 15, 20 years ago, and that you are making more money that you did back then. Yet we tend to think that government should get by on less. Lets leave all the 2002 cliches behind, and start 2003 working together to find real solutions in our families, in our communities, and in our government. I wish you great prosperity, health and happiness!
Happy New Year!
In January, newly elected Senator Dale Brandland took over from Gardner..