With a $3 billion budget deficit, the state is seeking advice for how to close the gap. Guest columnists Paola Maranan and Ingrid McDonald suggest raising taxes and eliminating business tax breaks.

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ON Monday, Gov. Chris Gregoire began holding a series of public forums on how to deal with the state’s tough budget challenges.

The continuing effects of the recession, by some estimates, will leave us about $3 billion short of funding state services like education, environmental protection and health care over the next biennium. And in a news release, the governor says the forums will help “shape how we build our budget and decide what programs it will fund with shrinking revenues.”

This will be a critical process. The budget, after all, is a statement of what we hold dear as a state — who we are as a people.

Will we, for instance, continue to be a state that helps our friends and our neighbors as they struggle through these tough times? Helps seniors have access to medical care, from physical rehabilitation to getting dentures? Will we as a state continue to do better for our children by providing early-learning opportunities and reducing classroom sizes so students in their formative early grades get more attention from teachers? Will we preserve college aid to pass on opportunity to the next generation?

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Or will we become shortsighted and decide to cut education, which will only hurt our economy’s ability to recover? Will we cut health coverage, knowing that it will drive more people to emergency rooms with more serious, expensive — and preventable — medical problems?

As advocates for some of our long-standing shared priorities, such as caring for children and seniors, we hope that during this process, policymakers will be guided by our state’s values — that we will protect priorities like education, health care and looking out for those struggling in this economy.

As the governor said at the first forum Monday, the choices we’ll make in the budget, “say a lot about the people of our state.”

But it’s important to remember our values have taken a hit. There’s not much give after two straight years of cuts. We slashed nearly $3.5 billion in 2009’s nearly all-cuts budget, and followed up this past legislative session by cutting another $755 million.

Further cuts will put in serious jeopardy the kind of state we aspire to be.

So what should we do?

Thus far, the hearings on the state’s future budgets envision focusing on only half of the picture — cutting spending. Given that we’ve already cut to the bone, it only makes sense to look at the other half — raising revenue — so our approach to dealing with the recession will be balanced.

We took a responsible approach this past legislative session by raising about the same amount of revenue as we cut, from nonessentials like cigarettes, sugary soda, candy and out-of-state beer. As a result, we did not have to eliminate health-care coverage for 16,000 lower-income children; eliminate prescription drug co-pay assistance for 85,000 very low-income seniors; slash all college financial aid for 12,300 students, while also significantly reducing aid for the other recipients; get rid of preventive dental care and home care for vulnerable seniors, or eliminate programs aimed at making sure the babies of at-risk moms are born healthy. The list goes on.

One reform we should consider is taking a long, hard look at the millions of dollars in tax exemptions the state hands out. Whereas we scrutinize other expenditures like funding, we do not examine whether these tax breaks are effective, efficient and should be continued.

We consider these “tax expenditures” because they cost the state money and, worse yet, they sit on the books unnoticed for years. It’s a good place to start when critical state services are in jeopardy.

Justifiably, the governor is asking tough questions. In answering these questions, we should keep in mind what kind of state we want to be.

Paola Maranan, left, is executive director of the Children’s Alliance. Ingrid McDonald is advocacy director of AARP Washington.

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