Hunter: Legislature faces tough task on budget

Rep. Ross Hunter had an easy race for reelection to the 48th District. That may be the last easy thing he sees when the Legislature returns in January.

The head of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, Hunter will face two big problems: balancing a state budget with revenue expected to be less than needed to maintain current programs and finding at least $1 billion in the next biennium, to meet a judge’s ruling to adequately pay for education. The McCleary decision determined that the state was not meeting its constitutional obligation to pay for basic education.

“I might be able to do the base budget without raising revenues,” Hunter said. “…But there’s no way you can find the money for the McCleary decision [for school education] in that budget. It’s just not doable. At least, I don’t see a solution.”

The state also faces Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act with 400,000 more people expected to qualify for coverage.

Complicating everything is voter approval this month of I-1185, an initiative pushed through by Tim Eyman, that requires a two-thirds vote in the Legislature to raise taxes. Legislative observers don’t think that’s possible.

Hunter also noted that exterior factors add to the uncertainty – Europe’s debt crisis and the U.S. fiscal cliff could pose a risk to state budgets as well. Almost half of Washington’s current operating budget is dependent on federal revenues that go toward a wide-range of programs.

Under the Affordable Care Act, the federal government initially would pay the full cost of expansion. But that share would drop to 90 percent by 2020. Hunter says he expects Medicaid expansion to save the state some money, but doesn’t know how much it would be.

Gubernatorial candidates Jay Inslee and Rob McKenna presented different responses to McCleary during election season. Hunter also put forward his own plan, a local levy swap adopted by McKenna on the campaign trail.

“I haven’t seen a proposal from either candidate yet that really adds up to significant savings and we’re going to continue to try and do that,” Hunter said.

Under the most recent forecast, spending is expected to increase from $31.1 billion in the current biennium to $33.8 billion in 2013-2015. Nevertheless, that leaves the state about $900 million short for the next cycle, a number that doesn’t include the additional spending required under the McCleary ruling.

“These are critical decisions the governor and Legislature have to make this year,” Hunter said. “What are we going to do, and how will we do it?”


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