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Budget balancers: CK citizens attack state’s red ink

It’s no secret Washington state has a $2.5 billion deficit.

It’s also no secret no one at the top has been able to close the gap appreciably.

So Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton, and Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, have gone back to the source — politically speaking.

As they promised to do months ago, they’ve set up a series of public educational-exercises for the public — allowing Joe Citizen to give suggestions on how he would balance the budget.

A session was held Thursday evening, Oct. 16, at the CK Fire and Rescue/Silverdale Water District building’s Conference Room off Dickey Road. Fifty citizens showed up, asking pressing questions and ready to hunker down and come up with creative solutions.

Before the meeting, Rockefeller said “We’re using ‘priorities’ and a model of the state budget. Citizens will select major areas of importance and then build the budget accordingly. Asking citizens to do this is one way for us to set priorities.”

The “education” process cuts two ways — citizens learn how the government works, and legislators get novel ideas.

This is a departure from the usual method of coming up with a budget, in which legislators go back and cut until it balances. With a list of citizen-generated priorities, taxpayers theoretically get what they want.

Sheldon opened the meeting.

“We’re going to give you a chance to go back in time — to January 2003. Each table (a dozen tables with about half-a-dozen folks at each) will become a mini-legislature. You’re going to have to make cuts. You’re facing a $2.5 billion deficit.”

State Senate Ways & Means Committee staffers Randy Hodgins and Mike Wills guided people through the technical-financial material — which was kept as straightforward as practicable.

“Washington is about in the middle, as far as budget deficits of states of the union. California, of course, is much worse,” Hodgins said.

He said it all depends on how much money “you want to spend” on the state’s wants and needs.

Hodgins was asked to explain the difference between capital bonds and the general fund, and why bond money couldn’t be used to balance the budget. He was asked why past governors and other former elected officials are allowed to appear before the Ways & Means committee and put in requests.

“Bonds are sold strictly for buildings. Hard assets,” said Hodgins. Borrowing money from the bond budget to pay the deficit would, technically, be like “selling bonds to pay for bonds ... you can’t do that.”

He said past officials come before the Ways & Means the way any citizen can.

Rockefeller was asked why legislators’ salaries can’t be cut.

“Actually, we do have to take the salaries given us,” he said. “Those salaries are generated by a separate non-partisan committee. Currently, salaries start at about $33,000” (for state representatives).

Citizens were given numerous hand-outs. They wrestled with the issues for two hours.

Other unorthodox revenue sources suggested at the meeting included: expand legalized gambling, max out tobacco settlement, call in reserves, borrow, tweak the tax system, increase nursing home bed fees, steal money from other accounts, accept donations from citizens and businesses.

Results were collected and will be analyzed for release later. Contact Sheldon at (360) 786-7644 or Rockefeller at (360) 786-7934 for more information.

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