OROVILLE – Local legislators Joel Kretz and Shelly Short said this year’s legislative sessions were “too long,” yet not enough was accomplished in the way of budget cuts.
Over lunch at Hometown Pizza and Pasta in Oroville last Friday, the two Seventh District Representatives said they had been in Olympia trying to hammer out a leaner budget since last December.
“It was really clear in November what we had to do… make cuts. We cut $400 million in December that were ‘no-brainers’ of the $2 billion we needed to cut,” said Rep. Kretz. “There was a push to get the whole supplemental done and do some job creation.”
Kretz said the regular session ended in March and a week or two before it ended they could see there wasn’t going to be enough time.
“It was a failure to plan… it turned into two more sessions, mostly dealing with social issues,” he said.
Rep. Short said things like Critical Access Hospitals and Levy Equalization were put on the back burner to these social issues.
“Hospitals and schools had no way of planning budgets. They couldn’t plan hiring or even sign contracts. Even local fair funding was proposed to be cut at first,” said Short. Kretz and Short both believe the Democratically-controlled House and Senate, as well as the governor’s mansion, were using the threat of deep cuts to funding for rural health care and education as a hammer to avoid making needed cuts to government bloat and waste in Olympia.
“All the really nasty stuff was pointed at rural Washington,” Kretz said.
“To take it even further, they carved out all the west side Democrat Districts for funding,” said Short. “That’s what really got me pissed off.”
Short said things like Critical Access Hospitals are serving populations with a high need for medical care, like those hospitals in Tonasket, Republic and Lincoln County.
“I’m one of those they served… without the hospital in Tonasket I’d be walking around on one leg,” said Kretz.
Short and Kretz said at first the Democrats were only suggesting small cuts in the funding of services vital to rural Washington.
“Before they were just biting around the edges, then they were pitting education against social services,” said Short.
“Then they were pitting it against everything like the fair… yeah, we can keep that if we get rid of Levy Equalization they’d say,” said Kretz.
Both agreed that it was hard to keep their constituents informed of what they felt were often minute by minute changes to the budget this year.
“We still have more revenue coming in and they want to spend more than we have,” Kretz said. “The rate of growth of state government is so much more than what the average family is seeing. We just can’t go to the people and ask for more.”
Short gave a couple of examples of how the state was making poor choices on how money was spent.
“A camera crew came in and did an expos&#233; on paid administrative leave. They found one woman who had been on administrative leave for four years with full pay, and she wanted to get back to work. And in no way is this an isolated case, these things need to be resolved right away,” said Short.
She also said state agencies define “cuts” differently than they do.
“Ecology has two categories, one being called ‘one-time cuts’ like where they cut someone from one department and move them to another department until they can bring them back,” said Short. “That’s not a cut; they just don’t get it. The DOE still has more FTEs than it did in 1999.”
Kretz said, “Most states have gone ahead and made the cuts and we haven’t. Most of the states that recognized and made the cuts have hit rock bottom and got the size of the state where it needs to be and have seen their economies start to recover. We haven’t done that.
“Instead our state has hunkered down to where it thinks it’s out of sight and is just poised to start expanding when things start to recover.”
Short also commented on Tribal studies on fish consumption that Ecology has considered using when setting water quality standards.
“They’re using Tribal standards and they’d like to make it statewide. The problem is we don’t have access to those numbers and the Tribes won’t give it to us, saying it is privileged work product. Yet Ecology wants to use this information to update one of our most important standards regarding water quality,” she said.
Short said stormwater regulations based on numbers from the west side of the state were also being used to form regulations governing the whole state.
“Why one standard when for the east side it makes no sense?” Short asked. “It could be hugely costly and doesn’t help our economy recover.”
The legislators are also concerned about Kinross Gold and their operations near Chesaw and Republic.
“They’re not getting good cooperation from the state or federal governments,” said Kretz. “There’s two years left basically at the Buckhorn project. They’re trying to get K-2 going and new exploration to supplement the mill. Otherwise if it’s gone Republic is in trouble.”
Short added that the state and federal governments have gotten involved and they are treating the exploration as if it is the same as the whole mine project.
“They have to be reminded that the impact is about exploration, not a mining operation,” she said. “They have to go through the whole process again if they decide to do another mining operation.”
“The impact is about like that for exploration,” said Kretz, holding his thumbs and fingertips together making a circle indicating the small size of the drill holes.
The two legislators vow to continue to fight for issues that affect the Seventh Legislative District and rural Washington.
“We want a chance to get in the middle of things and to do what we can do,” said Short.