In Washington, the sky might not be falling, but the downpour has officially begun.
On Wednesday, the state’s chief economist delivered a bombshell: The state’s projected budget shortfall has grown from a whooping $3.2 billion to a stunning $5.1 billion.
The bottom has fallen out of revenue collections so fast that the state faces an actual deficit of roughly $500 million in the current budget.
This is more than a rainy day; it’s a monsoon. Covering the gap will be the biggest challenge to face state budget writers in years.
On paper, the $5 billion shortfall is a 15 percent hit to the general fund taxes the state expected to collect. In reality, it’s a much bigger bite, because less than half of the state’s budget is really discretionary spending.
Unless state officials are considering setting convicts free or reneging on their obligations to Medicaid patients, they’ll have to look elsewhere to balance the budget.
Squarely in their sights is higher education, the biggest pot of unprotected money in the state budget. Colleges and universities are among the state agencies the governor’s budget staff have asked to plan to trim spending by 20 percent.
The cuts couldn’t come at a worse time as the troubled economy prompts droves of Washingtonians to head back to school. The workhorses of workforce education – the state’s community and technical colleges – are experiencing their highest enrollment growth since the 1970s. They might have to pare their rolls by 6,000 students.
University of Washington officials say that in addition to increasing class sizes and cutting programs, they might have to abandon plans to serve more placebound students at the branch campuses in Tacoma and Bothell.
Severe cuts in higher education won’t be easy to undo once the economy rebounds and state tax coffers are flush. Academic programs and faculties can take decades to rebuild. The potential for lasting damage has even the presidents of the state’s private colleges worried.
In a letter to the governor and state lawmakers last week, the presidents said, “Our public institutions have already been asked to cut $36 million from their budgets this fiscal year. If the state reduces support further, the negative effects will ripple through the region’s economy for years.”
Higher education likely can’t be spared the budget ax given the depth of the state’s financial troubles. But potential cuts should be viewed through the lens of how well they preserve the access and quality needed to revive the economy.