The Washington Legislature is busy chopping away at the state budget to meet what currently is estimated to be a $4.5 billion shortfall. On March 17, that job will become much more difficult.
Sequim’s two state representatives, Kevin Van De Wege and Steve Tharinger, say that’s the date the new budget projections will be made available. They anticipate the shortfall will grow by at least a half billion dollars, and perhaps by as much as $1.5 billion. They provided the bad news at a town hall meeting held in Sequim on Friday, March 11.
Approximately 100 citi-zens gathered at the Sequim Prairie Grange to ask questions, including Sequim City Councilor Laura Dubois and Port of Port Angeles Commissioner Jim McEntire, who recently ran unsuccessfully against Tharinger for the House seat. While the crowd included members of both the liberal MoveOn organization and the conservative Clallam County Concerned Citizens group — a sometimes incendiary combination — the discussion was mostly cordial, with the looming cuts as the primary topic.
The battle for the remaining funds will be tough, Van De Wege said. “On March 17 the music starts and when it stops, there will be a lot fewer chairs. It’s gonna be very intense.”
Tharinger noted that the Legislature in recent years has cut billions from the budget. “Since the recession began, 8,000 jobs at the state level have been lost.” He said many of those have been lost to attrition, with the positions remaining unfilled. “But when we go forward, a lot of people are going to lose their jobs and that will ripple through the economy.
“These will be people in our communities, friends … teachers … health workers.”
Some in the audience asked about efforts to increase revenues by closing tax exemptions. A comment that “We don’t have a deficit problem, we have a revenue problem,” drew a round of applause.
Both representatives said efforts are under way to close some of the exemptions, but neither was optimistic. Van De Wege called it “very difficult to get at in a year like this.” But, he said, “It’s irresponsible not to look at that side of the ledger (revenues).”
He noted that repealing an exemption takes a two-thirds vote by the Legislature.
Van De Wege cited a bill he’s promoting that would close a $25 million pharmacy exemption, but said, “The pharmacy industry is one that has the most lobbyists in Olympia.”
He said if the Legislature closes the exemption, a little more than $2 million would be spent on shoring up the state’s “drug take-back” program, with the balance going to fund the “Basic Care Plan.”
Basic Care contracts with health plans across Washington to provide reduced-cost health care coverage to qualified residents.
Before the session began, legislators said it was likely they would cut the program altogether, but they now are planning to toughen the standards for qualifying. “We can change it to make fewer people eligible,” Van De Wege said.
He noted the state perhaps loses more revenue on exemptions than it receives in sales taxes. There is “as much as $15 billion in exemptions,” he said. But he also noted that closing some would be unconstitutional, including those for churches and others “we would never consider.”
“They aren’t all corporate welfare,” he told one audience member.
Another audience mem-ber called closing the exemption on the pharmaceuticals company “just smoke and mirrors,” saying, “they just pass it along to us.”
In response to another question, Van De Wege said it also is unlikely the Legislature could successfully move to raise taxes. “People don’t trust government — we need to work for that,” he said.
Tharinger was singled out for criticism regarding his campaign contributions, with one audience member saying he received 31 percent of his contributions from private sources within District 24 and 67 percent from “unions, PACs” and others outside of District 24.
“Why do you accept those?” she asked.
Tharinger countered the criticism, saying, “We make decisions that impact the entire state.
Reach Mark Couhig at firstname.lastname@example.org.