How can state spending rise if deep cuts are made?

Federal dollars are being used to supplement the rising costs of current services.

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As state lawmakers debated (and bickered) among themselves about the deep cuts they faced to balance the budget, one would have thought government was coming to a complete standstill.

Not even close. In fact, earlier this month the state was on track to increase spending.

Total cuts currently range from about $650 million in the House budget to more than $900 million in the governor's proposal, The Seattle Times reported recently.

But those cuts were offset by around $900 million or more in increased spending in the various budget proposals. Most of the money would go to pay for rising expenses to maintain current services, such as more people are qualifying for Medicaid and additional K-12 students, The Times reported. Many state employees are still getting raises as mandated by union contracts.

After the one-time federal stimulus money is added, the current $30.9 billion two-year general-fund budget is on track to increase more than $200 million, according to the governor's budget office.

What about the $2.8 billion revenue shortfall we've heard so much about?

Well, it's still a problem. It means that lawmakers can't spend as much as they had wanted. When folks in Olympia talk about cuts, they don't necessarily mean cuts in spending from one year to the next, they mean cuts in spending requests - cuts to the wish list.

This mindset is nothing new.

About three decades ago, when Walla Walla's Jeannette Hayner was the top Republican in the state Senate, the debate in the Legislature was similar to today. A downturn in the economy slowed tax revenues, reducing the amount of money available to spend.

But Hayner didn't see this as a crisis or even a problem. In her view there was still plenty of money, just not enough money to increase spending.

"We don't have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem," Hayner said, and she said it often.

The spending problem has grown.

And so has frustration.

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, said that with the federal money coming in, Democrats "don't have the incentive to fix the budget. It's easy to take the money and move on and hope for a better day. This is like running out and buying an expensive automobile and then going out and finding a job to pay for it. It's crazy."

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, told The Times that House Democrats who wanted more cuts in state spending "sort of got run over" by members from districts considered safe havens for Democrats.

"I think a majority of our caucus is from very safe districts where voters are very different from swing (districts) and rural areas," she said. "As a result, they just feel like we don't want to reform."

Reform is needed, and needed now. That starts with the mindset that it's a cut or a sacrifice to reduce a wish list.

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