Senators host discussion in Federal Way regarding state's economic situation

State Sen. Tracey Eide (D-District 30) answers questions during a town hall meeting March 13 in Federal Way. - Andy Hobbs/The Mirror
State Sen. Tracey Eide (D-District 30) answers questions during a town hall meeting March 13 in Federal Way.
— image credit: Andy Hobbs/The Mirror

It was standing room only during a town hall forum devoted to Washington state's budget and economy.

State Sens. Tracey Eide (D-District 30), Karen Keiser (D-District 33) and Claudia Kauffman (D-District 47) led a discussion about the state's economic dilemmas March 13 at Federal Way City Hall.

Faced with a state budget shortfall exceeding $8 billion, the lawmakers asked the audience to raise their hands for the solution they preferred: Reduce expenses solely through cutting programs, raise taxes or a combination of both. According to one count, about 36 people favored cuts and increased taxes to cover the shortfall; about 25 people raised their hands for a cuts-only approach.

The town hall focused on transportation, health care and education. A recap of the discussion:

• Unemployment in Washington state has reached 7.9 percent. Priorities in the Legislature include creating new jobs while keeping jobs intact.

• Washington state has about $4.1 billion in an unemployment fund. "Thank the good Lord because we're probably going to need it," Eide said.

• The state has saved $730 million by cutting overhead, freezing salaries and stopping hires in state government, the senators said.

• During a recession, sales tax revenue plummets. The state has taken in $5 billion less in sales tax, a major contributor to the current economic crisis, the senators said.

• Areas that are off-limits to cuts include basic education and basic health care. Areas that face cuts include prisons, higher education, law enforcement, K-12 education and state parks, the senators said. For example, if the state were to close all higher education facilities, jails and state parks, the cuts would amount to about $6 billion — yet the target reduction is $8.3 billion, Eide said. "We're not talking cutting to the bone," Eide said. "We're talking about cutting limbs."

• The transportation and construction budget (about $7.4 billion) is separate from the state's operating budget ($57.2 billion).

• Higher education facilities in the state will see more layoffs, the senators said. Focusing on early learning can reduce the future costs of education, they said.

• Kauffman wants to see amendments to funding for Running Start, a program that allows high school students to earn college credits. SB 5924 would allow community and technical colleges colleges to count Running Start students toward their enrollment targets, charge student fees and create a fee-waiver program for low-income students.

• Washington state has added 12,000 more kids to public schools since 2005.

• Washington state's prison system has added 1,000 more prisoners since 2005.

• About 10,000 more people since 2005 are unable to work because of mental or physical disability. These people are helped through small grants from the General Assistance Unemployable program.

• Businesses: Proposals in the state Legislature for small businesses include a $3,000 tax credit for every new job created and $450 million in total tax relief.

• In response to one citizen's frustration with taxes and the size of government, Eide told him: "We will not stand here and tell you we will raise your taxes."

Some key bills

• SB 6019: Creates a way for small businesses to reduce health care costs by implementing verified employee wellness programs.

• SB 6038: Allows the unemployed worker to participate in the Basic Health Plan with the full unsubsidized premium.

• SB 5346: Reduces administration costs for health care.

• SB 5945: Seeks federal waiver to access matching funds to pay core health care benefits for low-income working families.

• SB 6048: Rewrites the legal definition of "basic education," which is given special protection in the state constitution.

• SB 5880, SB 5889, SB 5890: Aimed at reducing the burden to local school districts by eliminating some unfunded mandates.

• SB 5414: Reforming the WASL to make it better and shorter.

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