Guest commentary by State Rep. Jason Overstreet:
With the start of the New Year comes our fourth legislative session in 12 months. State lawmakers spent two special sessions in 2011 addressing the same problem: an unsustainable budget. Unfortunately, the 2012 session will again be focused on the same problem at a time when strengthening the economy should be the priority.
You might wonder why this budget problem persists. The simple truth: despite the sacrifices so many individuals, families and businesses have made in these tough times, Olympia refuses to adjust to economic realities.
Democrats control the House, Senate and governor’s mansion. They claim the national economy is solely to blame for all of the state budget woes. This is not true.
From 2005 to 2008, state spending exploded. With a hot real estate market and consumer spending up, the state was taking in record tax collections. The majority party spent the excess money and, to compound problems, based future budgets on inflated tax collections. When the economy reset and receded, these irresponsible budgeting practices were exposed. We are dealing with the aftermath today.
The majority party also claims the budget has been cut by $10.5 billion since 2008. A recent Associated Press article pointed out: “That number is only true if you stretch the interpretation of what a budget cut is” and that “many of the hundreds of cuts Gregoire and other Democrats have tallied are simply automatic spending increases that didn’t end up happening.”
You only see this definition of a “cut” in Olympia.
Consider that even after $2 billion in needed spending reductions the state general fund is still projected to grow by $1.98 billion, or 6.9 percent! How many families and businesses would like to be in this position?
Many in the majority party and the governor say there is no other choice than to raise your taxes. While the governor has proposed a state sales tax increase of nearly $500 million, she is holding education and services for our most vulnerable hostage, hoping taxpayers will acquiesce to a tax increase that even she believes is “regressive.”
This is a false choice. The governor has proposed cutting funding for senior citizen services by 20 percent, while only cutting her Department of Ecology’s budget by 4.4 percent. She wants to fully fund state employee step salary increases while cutting services for the developmentally disabled. She also wants to continue funding sick-leave cash payments to state employees while cutting funding for at-risk youth and families.
It comes down to priorities. Let’s set aside the rhetoric of an “all-cuts” budget and focus on an “all-priorities” budget. We need a state spending plan that prioritizes education, public safety and programs for our most vulnerable, and is based on the simple concept that the state should not spend more than it takes in.
We also need to commit to government reform. For a party so enamored with change at the national level in 2008, it is absolutely terrified of it at the state level. In an interview with Publicola, the governor was asked: “The Republicans have been happy to hear you embrace their mantra, which is ‘Government can’t do it all.’” She responded with, “I say it regrettably. They don’t.” A good starting point for reform is this: If the service can be found in the Yellow Pages, maybe the state shouldn’t be doing it.
We also need to eliminate waste and fraud in state government. I commend State Auditor Brian Sonntag, a Democrat, for his work identifying billions of dollars of wasteful government spending.
A recent audit revealed between March 2010 and February 2011, the state spent more than $500,000 on unused cell phones. Another audit showed from July 2008 and June 2011, the state paid more than $3.8 million for medical exams that never happened. And in June 2010, the state built an off-ramp to Highway 16 in the wrong place, costing taxpayers an extra $1 million to fix.
The point is this: It is absolutely unthinkable to ask a taxpayer for more of their hard-earned money in light of the state’s failed stewardship of taxpayer dollars.
The equation to a sustainable budget is this: set priorities, commit to reform, eliminate waste and fraud in state government, and strengthen the economy through less government, lower taxes and more freedom to create, innovate and produce. We just need the leadership and courage to move them forward, breaking from business as usual in Olympia.
Rep. Jason Overstreet represents the 42nd Legislative District, which includes the communities of Birch Bay, Blaine, Deming, Everson, Ferndale, Lynden, Nooksack, Point Roberts, Sumas, and parts of Bellingham.