This weekend the Legislature met in a special session to address the budget shortfall. Unlike what you’ve heard in the press, we can’t all arrive in Olympia, figure out what we’re going to do, get agreement from 147 legislators, write it down on scraps of paper and call it a day. Turning all the decisions into a bill takes 2-3 days, including much error checking and review. Getting consensus took several weeks. All four caucuses (Senate, House, Democrats and Republicans) worked cooperatively with the Governor to make this happen. It was the smoothest budget change I’ve ever seen.
The total problem that needs to be solved is about $1.1 billion. There was about $8 billion in planned spending left in the fiscal year, so this is 13.75% of the remaining spending. We made changes that reduce the budget problem by between $550 and $700 million. There is a relatively complex interaction between the bill we passed and the Governor’s existing across the board cuts that we’re working out all the details of. This will take another few days. Solving $700 million of the problem leaves over $400 million left to resolve in the first few weeks of the session in January, but it’s good to get these decisions done and over with.
I don’t want to make this sound like a technical exercise – it wasn’t.
We cut services to people that will result in real impacts. Class sizes will increase in early grades, disabled adults will no longer receive many medical services they previously did, and many other useful activities are no longer being performed. For example, adults on Medicaid will no longer receive non-emergency dental care, though we did keep a program at the UW that provides service for the profoundly disabled who cannot typically be served in a regular dental office. Typically adults who are on Medicaid are those with serious disabilities. We were able to save prescription drug coverage for this population by making other cuts, though there will be pressure on this item in January.
Many of you have written in about the gifted education program. The governor proposed cutting it, but the Legislature chose not to. State funding makes up about 15% of what is spent on gifted programs in school districts, so eliminating it would not have eliminated the programs, but would have hurt district ending fund balances. Like every other cut to education, it would have put pressure on the program for next year. I am not sanguine about the prospects for keeping this program in the additional $400 million in cuts we will have to make in January.
You will hear a lot from me about the budget this year. This particular note is about the immediate short-term problem we face in the budget that ends in June of 2011. The two year budget for 2011-13 faces a $5.7 billion shortfall, and we will need to make significant changes to how we structure what we do to fit inside the revenue curve for the long run. This will be an exercise in identifying what we all value and making decisions about the level of taxation and the level of services provided by Washington State.