There's nothing like an $8.5 billion budget deficit to spur some creative thinking. That's how House Speaker Frank Chopp says he's looking at the gaping hole that legislators in Olympia will have to start dealing with in the coming weeks.
Reducing the state's $33 billion biennial budget by $8.5 billion will mean cutting the state's 2009-10 programs and services by 25 percent -- or more, if a new forecast due this week shows even less tax revenue coming into state coffers as a result of the recession.
At a March 14 constituents' forum in Seattle with Chopp and fellow 43rd District Democrat Rep. Jamie Pedersen, Pedersen said that some portions of the budget can't be touched, so the problem is actually worse than it seems. But Chopp told the more than 100 in attendance at Capitol Hill's First Baptist Church not to lose hope.
The legislature has already raised unemployment benefits about $1,000 a year, he said. And unlike the recession in the 1980s, when the White House did not help the states, President Barack Obama has signed a stimulus bill that's going to fill $3 billion of the state hole with federal money. For the remainder, Chopp said, legislators need to "do things creatively."
For example, he cited House Bill 2252, which passed to the Senate on March 12. The bill would extend a hotel-motel tax set to expire in 2011 that funds arts and cultural programs. After 2011, the tax would provide the same amount for the arts, Chopp said, along with $8 million a year to build affordable housing near light rail stations. (Legislation that would have encouraged more transit-oriented development died.)
Chopp said he and majority Democrats in the House and Senate are working on various proposals to save a cash assistance program for the very poor from being eliminated and reverse deep cuts to the state's Basic Health Plan for low-income working people