Guest Commentary by Sen. Lisa Brown

It's a reality show you can see only on TVW, the state's public affairs network: 147 members of the state Legislature and one governor work in cramped temporary quarters in Olympia and come to agreement to pass a balanced state budget.

The conditions are tougher than just working in portable buildings, where we'll be for the next couple of years. (The Legislative Building, with its trademark dome and marble halls, is closed for renovation.)

Washington has a $2.4 billion problem to solve. That number represents the gap between available revenue and the amount needed to fund services and programs for the coming biennium. The deficit is approximately 10 percent of the state's $24 billion budget.

Gov. Gary Locke was the first player to reveal how he would solve the problem. In a strange turning of the tables, Democrats largely criticized the plan, while Republicans praised it and even have begun to try to implement some of its components.

The governor took a well-publicized approach called "Priorities of Government." He asked government agencies to rate their services in terms of high, medium or low priority. Those responses helped the governor craft a budget that he says focuses on the most critical state services that we can provide within available resources.

The process of re-evaluating what government should be doing has been praised, and my Senate Democratic colleagues and I agree that such a review has enormous merit.

But while the process may be admirable, the results are not.

The budget would hurt our most needy and vulnerable citizens. It's a plan that tries to cut our way out of the deficit problem with costly results in human terms.

And last week, the Senate Republicans got the ball rolling by passing a supplemental budget that gets a jump-start on some cuts, effectively starting the pain sooner.

For example, the governor's two-year budget proposal seeks to find savings by cutting 60,000 people from eligibility for the state's Basic Health Plan (BHP). These are folks who are living paycheck to paycheck -- barely making it -- and who don't receive health insurance from their employers. Ironically, if these people turned to welfare, they would have their health care covered.

The BHP allows the working poor to get the health care they need on a regular basis. It keeps them out of hospital emergency rooms, the only option for many people who don't have insurance but need medical attention. Emergency-room overuse puts a financial strain on already struggling hospitals, and eventually leads to higher health-care costs for everyone as hospitals seek to recoup the expense of treating people who can't afford to pay.

Just two years ago, voters approved an initiative that expands the roles for the BHP through a tax increase on cigarettes. Now, in their supplemental budget, Senate Republicans seek to freeze enrollments. This while some 12,000 people sit on the BHP waiting list, including 480 people in Spokane County. I can't support that.

If the Republicans' early endorsement of the governor's approach is any indication, there's more bad news ahead. There are other critical human service programs on the chopping block in the governor's budget -- some of which help our children.

Do we want to be the kind of state that cuts nearly $18 million from foster care services and $17 million from crisis centers for at-risk youth? Do we want to be the kind of state that increases college tuition by nearly 20 percent over two years -- shutting out prospective students who simply won't be able to afford to earn a college degree?

But wait! There's more not to like. Also under consideration are cuts to legal services for the indigent, an end to dental care for low-income elderly and elimination of assistance for the most chronically unemployable people in our state.

Education isn't safe from the red pen, either. Voter-approved education initiatives that help to reduce class size and give teachers annual cost-of-living-adjustments are suspended under Locke's plan.

I've served as chair of the budget-writing Senate Ways & amp; Means Committee. I understand the challenges of writing a budget, and I'm not pretending that there aren't cuts that will need to be made, some of them painful.

But this is not a problem that we can simply cut our way out of. Republicans would have us believe we simply need to address the spending side of government, but not review the revenue side.

When trying to solve the budget problem, it's not enough, nor responsible, simply to review initiatives and programs that cost money. We should also look at initiatives and legislative decisions that have taken revenue away from the state. Some people seem to think that voters are always wrong when they tell Olympia how to spend their money but always right when they tell us how to cut their taxes. You've heard it before, but in short, everything needs to be on the table.

Are there corporate tax breaks that might be worth review? There are more than 400 on the books. If the state had back the revenue from just one-half of all the tax cuts and revenue diversion measures passed during the last 10 years, there would be no budget deficit.

The season finale of this reality show filled with strange bedfellows and a formidable task is scheduled for late April. By then, I hope my colleagues will have made the citizens of Washington the winners of the budget game by making true balanced budget choices that keep both people and pocketbooks in mind.

State Sen. Lisa Brown represents the 3rd Legislative District in Spokane. She is minority leader of the Senate Democrats and serves on the Senate Ways & amp; Means and Rules committees.

Publication date: 02/06/03

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