One of the most challenging times in my 24-year public service career was 2009 when I was the newly elected budget chair in Olympia. The recession had hit hard and I was responsible for working with all other legislators, the administration and the public to reduce state spending by $5 billion.
The “motto” at the top of my office white board was “what can’t wait.” During most of my legislative service, the reality was deciding what to fund, not what to cut. But everything changed in 2009-10 and continues to this last legislative session. K-12 public education is constitutionally our No. 1 priority. And birth through higher education funding are also important for social and economic success.
Caring for those who are unable to care for themselves — through age, disability, mental illness or substance abuse — really can’t wait. Meeting our mandatory laws for protecting our citizens and the environment can’t be ignored. Now add a Supreme Court ruling to fund education and a $100,000 per day fine for every day the legislature fails to act. In addition, the court also ruled that more mental health beds are needed to alleviate jail time for those with mental illness.
Short term fixes are available, such as cutting higher education and essential social services, but these lead to long term budget increases (unemployment, higher criminal justice expenses, social welfare costs, and poor public outcomes). Longer term options do exist to solve this complex and overwhelming challenge, however.
First, define what is legally required by the federal government, because state officials can’t change those requirements.
Second, define what our state code requires. These laws can be changed, but it needs legislative action.
Third, examine what could be changed administratively by the governor.
Fourth, identify what we do because we want to — which may be the hardest expenditures to reduce.
I have worked with our city department heads to create a similar hierarchy of services and a list of priorities to help us determine how we as a city could advance a balanced budget process and deliver essential services. We are in the process of revising these documents to ensure we’re all working together on the same page. These principles support our rationale to the City Council and the public as we present our budget recommendations.
But my universe is the city of Bellingham, and I rely on my department heads and key staff as we develop our recommendations to take to the council and the public. The Legislature budget process includes 148 individual legislators, a huge staff and an intense public process. Their decisions have an enormous impact on the lives of Washington residents and businesses.
Cutting costs, raising taxes, streamlining the regulatory processes and growing the economic pie all will and should be considered as the legislature moves forward. To accomplish all of these things, legislators must have a few central agreements:
▪ Agree on the goals for what the budget will accomplish;
▪ Determine the impacts and unintended consequences of budget decisions;
▪ Work as a team in the public’s interest.
In prosperous times, it is easier to cooperate. As we face recovery from the recession, competition over heartfelt priorities make that cooperation more difficult.
Standing back and focusing on the requirements — the decisions having the greatest impact in the long term, financially, socially, and economically, focusing on “what can’t wait” — will make the legislature’s job less hard and will lead to better outcomes for the public that we all serve.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
This is one of a series of monthly Civic Agenda reports The Bellingham Herald invited Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville to provide to share updates about City of Bellingham issues and projects. She invites citizens to contact her at 360-778-8100 or firstname.lastname@example.org.