Politics & Government

Senate GOP leader rips Inslee‘s budget-cuts exercise as ‘fear mongering’

Budget writers reached a bipartisan agreement on both the two-year operating budget in 2013 and again on a supplemental operating budget this year. Now it’s election season, and it appears the gloves are already coming off. This time it’s over Gov. Jay Inslee’s budget exercises, which are meant to create some flexibility for his next biennial budget in December.

“It’s Jay Inslee fear mongering. The scenario (for cuts) really doesn’t exist with the four-year balanced budget and revenue forecast,” Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville said late last week. “But it’s great fear mongering by the governor. He told us Lean management and the secret sauce would take care of all of this’’ problem with budget shortfalls.

Inslee’s budget office is asking state agencies to identify up to 15 percent in spending cuts for programs not protected from cuts. Funding for K-12 schools is protected to a large degree by the state Constitution, debt payments must be made, and some Medicaid benefits for the poor are mandated by the federal government.

Inslee’s budget director David Schumacher says the scenario for cuts does exist. That is because carry-forward costs of government will exceed expected revenues by roughly $700 million to $1 billion, despite the four-year balanced budget rule. And that does not include the money needed for K-12 schools to satisfy the state Supreme Court’s order in the McCleary case.

In sharp contrast to Schoesler, House Appropriations chair Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said he thinks Inslee’s moves are prudent.

One reason is that the four-year balanced budget that the Senate Majority Coalition likes to point to didn’t actually take into account the school funding increase under McCleary. That cost could be $1.5 billion to $2 billion alone, according to many Democrats.

Schoesler said he thinks it is legitimate for Inslee to ask departments “for ideas” on cuts but he views the 15 percent exercise as “plain old fear mongering. Can you imagine taking another 15 percent out of higher ed and scaring the heck out of them?’’

Hunter speculated that the budget exercise will “cut probably deeper than he needs to,” but the Democrat noted that this gives the governor the ability to have choices about spending priorities.

Asked if he sees cuts as inevitable, Hunter said he has no idea this far away from the January 2015 session. But he said, “We always end up doing stuff that looks like cuts. Even if you were to raise revenue next year – which I think we need to do – we still have to make some choices.’’

Moreover, he said, staffers at House Appropriations were already engaged in a budget cutting exercise like the agencies will be doing.

By law, Inslee must send the Legislature a budget in late December that is balanced using state revenues expected under current law. The budget covers the two-year cycle that starts in July 2015.

Still, Schoesler said, state revenues are growing at a rate of more than 8 percent every two years, and he thinks a budget can be achieved without new taxes and with more money for schools.

Stay tuned.

UPDATE: It looks like Jason Mercier, a government efficiency watchdog with the right-of-center Washington Policy Center, sees Inslee’s budget exercises might yield some good.

In a Facebook post, he said budget instructions from OFM include performance measures. “If agencies actually follow these instructions and don’t use ‘Washington Monument ploys,’ this could provide valuable insight into how they rank their activities and what they believe to be low versus high priorities,” Mercier wrote.