State Sen. Rodney Tom, along with Reps. Deb Eddy and Ross Hunter from the 48th District spent Saturday afternoon in Redmond answering questions and discussing the challenges that loom ahead — with the state budget being the hot — and most concerning — topic.
“There’s a lot of very good programs out there that are going to get cut … If this isn’t an economic emergency, I don’t know what is,” Tom said to a standing-room-only crowd at the Redmond City Hall City Council chambers. It was clear that even with everyone’s varied concerns, the state budget was at the top of the list.
Tom said the state is facing a $6 billion deficit in its $32 billion budget, adding that hammering out the details of how and where to spend Washington’s money is the top priority for lawmakers in Olympia.
CUTTING IT DEEP
He said some cuts will be based on department histories and how efficiently they are being run.
Tom added that with how deep the cuts are, writing the budget is really going to take a bipartisan effort among legislators, which is something new for Washington.
Eddy, who, along with Tom and Hunter, is a Democrat, agreed. When asked about how people could get their opposing-party neighbors to listen to their views, she said there needs to be more give and take among the public and lawmakers alike. She said people need to come and work together more.
“What is called for now is the need to listen to each other,” she said.
The issue of closing tax loopholes came up as a way to raise taxes and as a result, raise revenue, but Tom said that would need a two-thirds vote from the senate. Additionally, as shown in all but five of the state’s 49 districts, Washingtonians believe now is not the time to raise taxes.
There was also the question of extending current taxes, which was initially proposed as temporary fix. Eddy said that is a possibility as life changes along with people’s needs.
Tom, however, opposed this idea because he thinks this will break down the public’s trust of politicians since they would be going back on earlier promises.
The legislators also voiced their opposition against sweeping funds from accounts designed for a certain purpose into the state’s general fund.
Eddy said it doesn’t make sense to keep asking the public for money to refill such accounts.
Hunter, who sponsored legislation in 2007 for a state rainy day fund, said there is currently $289 million in that fund, but they are still not sure whether they will dip into the fund and if so, how much they will decide to spend. The fund was created as a way to save one percent of the state’s revenue during the good times so money would be available during the bad times.
State employees’ salaries also came into question and while Hunter does not believe they should be giving pay raises this year, he concedes that they need to be able to provide salaries comparable to the private sector in order to attract and retain quality and experienced employees.
INNOVATION IN EDUCATION
The current state of Washington’s finances also brought up concerns about education.
Tom, who serves on the Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee as well as the Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, said there has been talk about giving public universities the power to set tuition, but the shortfall trickling down from the state could have institutions raising tuition up to 25 percent per year, which they don’t want.
“Theoretically, it’s a beautiful idea,” Tom said.
Talks of the education budget also raised the question of the annual salary bonus the state provides for National Board-certified teachers. Hunter, nursing a bad cold and speaking very little at the meeting, said he wants to make sure to continue with the program because that bonus has become a base part of these teachers’ salaries.
In addition, Hunter said the quality of public education in Washington needs to be raised so students are better prepared for post-high school life, whether that means entering a two-year program, four-year university or directly into the workforce. And for those aiming toward a four-year university, he said schools need to find innovative ways to expand and allow better access to their programs to lower-income students.
Hunter added that Washington schools need to find a fair way for students to demonstrate their knowledge since not everyone tests well, but this needs to be done in a cost-efficient way, given the current budget.
TAKING ITS TOLL
Eddy said they have also been asked why the state can’t use money from the transportation budget for education or other departments. She explained that the transportation budget is set for just that and they can’t just move money back and forth as they please.
With the upcoming tolls on the State Route 520 bridge, transportation was another hot topic at the meeting. Eddy said she and her fellow lawmakers have received public feedback about people experiencing technical difficulties with the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) website when they try to purchase their Good to Go! pass. She said this was because many were logging on to do the same for the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and the department just did not have enough staff to deal with the spike in site traffic. This being said, Eddy acknowledged the importance of working out all the technical kinks with the tracking system before it goes live because the potential to incorrectly toll drivers is very high.
She added that it is very likely that within three years, there will also be a toll on the Interstate 90 bridge.
“I know some of you don’t like it,” Eddy told the crowd about the tolls. “It’s just the world we live in.”
Tom said these tolls in addition to the potential high occupancy toll (HOT) lanes on Interstate 405 is the likely direction Washington will be moving as a way to pay for its roads. With the increase of electric vehicles on the road, the state’s revenue from gas taxes is decreasing, he said.