Coronavirus requires painful cuts to Washington state budget

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Gabriel Campanario / The Seattle Times

Despite the pain, Gov. Jay Inslee must make deep cuts to the supplemental budget Washington’s Legislature finalized just a few weeks ago.

Inslee is expected to veto some new spending before signing the budget into law on Friday. He must not hold back. That requires political courage, but there is simply no choice.

State and local governments cannot commit to higher levels of spending going forward until the economic effects of coronavirus measures are better understood. That may take months.

Tax collections supporting state government are expected to plunge more than 10% this year. They could fall 15% or more, depending on how long it takes to resume normal activity.

All Washingtonians will be affected but, like stay-home measures, the sacrifices are necessary for the state’s fiscal health and recovery.

One encouraging sign is the bipartisanship shown so far. Legislative leaders from both parties are supporting deep cuts even though much of their work during last session will be erased. This cooperation is welcome but, still, the Legislature should be prepared for a special session later this year, potentially to make even harder budget revisions.

“We don’t want to come off as making this political or just throwing jabs,” said state Sen. John Braun, a Lewis County Republican. “We do broadly agree that this is not a political problem, this is a health problem, and we all ought to be getting along and working together.”

The 2020 Legislature left the state fairly well positioned for a moderate slowdown, with about $2 billion in its rainy-day fund. But lawmakers also approved nearly $1 billion of new spending, much of which now appears unsustainable, given the necessary economic halt imposed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The proposed two-year budget is now $53.8 billion, up 20% over the previous biennium.

Elected officials and the public must now triage spending priorities. For instance, new spending for additional school counselors is much needed and was just added to the Legislature’s budget. But that’s likely to be cut, to preserve as much of the current K-12 budget as possible.

“This is the kind of stuff we have to do to keep education fully funded,” said David Schumacher, director of the state Office of Financial Management.

Local governments also should be preparing for dramatic cuts, particularly in new spending programs, that the state will be unable to backfill.

This massive reset of government spending requires strong leadership and political will. It also must be transparent, with constituents informed of options considered and different scenarios upon which elected officials are basing decisions.

Many legislators and state employees are better prepared after experiencing the last recession, said state Sen. Christine Rolfes, a Bainbridge Democrat and lead budget writer.

One key lesson, she said: The state cannot backslide on behavioral health, and must stay focused on sheltering people and keeping people in their homes.

“We dropped the ball on that big time during the recession,” she said.

That doesn’t make Inslee’s job easier. But he must be quick and assertive with his veto pen Friday, to protect core government services and potentially avoid more painful cuts in the coming year.

The Seattle Times editorial board: members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Brier Dudley, Jennifer Hemmingsen, Mark Higgins, Derrick Nunnally and William K. Blethen (emeritus).