May 17, 2007 |

State budget benefits West Plains – for now

By JOHN McCALLUM

Editor

Even with concerns about spending outpacing revenues, all three Ninth District legislators admit the 2007 Legislative session concluded last month was a good one for Eastern Washington overall, and the West Plains area in particular.

“In the short term, it's positive,” state Sen. Mark Schoesler (R-Ritzville) said. “Long term, there's cause for concern.”

The $33.4 billion 2007-2009 budget – about $4 billion more in state spending than the last biennial budget in 2005 – includes over $75 million in projects directly affecting, or having ties to Cheney, Medical Lake and the West Plains.

Education and construction projects were the big winners in the two-year budget, and Eastern Washington University got both. The university picked up $33.8 million in construction funding, including $10.8 million for renovating Hargreaves Hall, and also received $4.084 million for education funding, including $2.25 million for student support.

The budget makes room for 230 more enrollments at Eastern, 100 in high demand technology fields, and 30 graduate enrollments.

“This was one of the best higher education budgets in a decade,” state Rep. David Buri (R-Colfax) said. “Capital project-wise, it was a good bipartisan effort.”

The Palouse River and Coulee City Railroad received $11 million for needed repairs to the line, which provides freight rail service for Cheney, Medical Lake and towns in Lincoln County.

Even with the money, state Rep. Steve Hailey (R-Mesa) said there is still work remaining to keep the line open, such as getting the various jurisdictions served to form a rail district.

The budget also appropriated $7.8 million for a new veterans cemetery near Medical Lake, $6.7 million for a rail connection between the Geiger Spur, which serves businesses on the West Plains, and the PR&CC line and $4.9 million for a sex offender treatment facility at Airway Heights Correction Center. Money was also set aside for a pair of projects in Medical Lake: $2.9 million to renovate Lakeland Village cottages and $2.3 million to upgrade Eastern State Hospital's communications system.

Also receiving construction funding was the Fish Lake Trail ($1 million), a new West Plains transloader facility ($860,000), and the Silver Lake fishing dock ($192,000).

The three district legislators praised another area of the budget that has been a Republican Party initiative for years – the establishment of a rainy-day fund.

The Democratic-controlled Legislature approved the creation of the constitutionally protected savings account that would set aside 1 percent of general fund tax collections each year, and can only be tapped by a 60 percent majority vote in both houses.

The fund, which would start next year with $134 million of the $724 million in reserves set aside by the Legislature, now goes to the voters for approval this November.

“It's very, very hard for me to believe the voters will not embrace it,” Schoesler said.

But even with the successes, all three legislators expressed concerns about the sustainability of the programs, and believe the Legislature failed to get a grip on spending, and plan for a potential budget deficit.

All three said the budget was the largest state budget ever, that it reflected a 30 percent increase in state spending over the last four years, could turn a projected $2 billion surplus into a $1 billion deficit in four years, and $2 billion in six, and created $2 billion in new programs.

Office of Financial Management communications director Anne Martens agreed the current budget is the largest ever – but said there are reasons.

“The first, of course, is that every budget is the biggest budget,” she said via email. “That's because as new people move to, or are born into our fast-growing state they push up the demand for basic services, even as the costs to provide education, prisons and medical care rise.”

Marten said the budget shows a spending increase of 24 percent since 2005, mostly to keep up with inflation, population growth and debt service obligations on capital projects.

Also, recession-era cuts in social programs were restored, as well as playing catch up with pension obligations deferred during the recession, filling holes created by federal cutbacks, and investing in education, health care and small business support.

“The very programs Washingtonians told us they wanted most,” Marten said, adding that the size of government shrank when compared with 2005, and that Gov. Christine Gregoire took office with a $2.2 billion deficit and less than rosy budgetary projections.

“For those who think the budget grew too much or too fast, we ask them, what would you cut?” Marten said.

John McCallum can be reached at jmac@cheneyfreepress.com

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