Once again, lawmakers in Olympia are grappling with a huge state budget deficit. The recession is still hurting people in our state – people are earning less, spending less and thus paying fewer taxes. As a result, the state is up to $5 billion short of what it needs to fund core services for the next two years.
This is a problem for everyone in our state, whether you are rich or poor, young or old. We will all be touched by inevitable cuts in state services and weakening infrastructure - and the most vulnerable among us will be hardest hit.
But wait, there are choices here. An “all cuts” budget that slashes health and long term care; de-funds our schools and universities; weakens our criminal justice system and puts our natural resources at risk is unacceptable.
Lawmakers have a false perception that voters in the mid-term election sent a clear message that gives them no choice other than an all cuts approach. But it is a lot more complicated than that.
Yes, voters rejected Initiative 1098 to establish a high incomes tax to fund health care and education. They approved Initiative 1107 to repeal a 2-cent increase on a can of soda, and they approved Tim Eyman’s Initiative 1053 to require a supermajority vote for any changes in the tax code.
But they didn’t vote for an all cuts budget that will eat away at the quality of life in Washington State. A December Elway Poll of Washington voters found that the majority of voters do not expect the legislature to solve the budget deficit through cuts alone. Forty percent expect some taxes will have to be raised and 18 percent believe that the Legislature will “find money from somewhere to fund programs without a general tax increase.”
Reducing a $33 billion dollar budget by $5 billion or so won’t happen without some pain. Lawmakers have tough choices to make but they do have choices.
First and foremost, AARP is urging lawmakers to prioritize and protect services that keep people in their own homes and communities as they age. Cutting home care, adult day health programs, Meals and Wheels and other supports is penny wise and pound foolish. It will not only hurt people – it will also cost more in the long run as seniors give up hope of staying home and resort to more expensive nursing home care. The same goes for proposed cuts to prescription drugs and other core Medicaid benefits. Without stabilizing medications and proper care, emergency room use and hospitalizations will rise, all at more cost to the state.
So what are the options for raising taxes and how can that be done without hurting people who are already hurting from the recession and with the supermajority vote requirement in place? First, require tax exemptions to receive the same legislative scrutiny as other forms of spending and require all exemptions to have sunset dates. Second, crack down on tax evaders to recoup hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue lost by businesses that illegally or unethically fail to pay their fair share. And if you can’t get a supermajority vote for these or more fundamental tax changes, let the people decide. There is nothing stopping this legislature from using a majority vote to send a referendum to the voters to preserve services they care about by supporting a specific revenue raiser.
Reach out to your state lawmakers and remind them that they have options, tell them what you care about and what you don’t want to see cut back – whether that is the quality of education for your grandchildren, the public safety infrastructure that keep criminals out of your neighborhood or the home care worker who helps you get out of bed. You can contact your lawmaker through the Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000.
Find more information from the Washington State Legislature.