LAST WEEK, AN historic event occurred: King County's budget shrank. In 2002, the county's general fund was $497 million; next year it will be $489 million. Budget chair Larry Phillips, D-Magnolia, pointed out that King County's budget has never actually been reduced in size before. The recession, the county's declining tax base, and the voters' tax revolt have all taken their toll, and now there is less money for parks, human services, and criminal justice.
Despite facing a $52 million deficit, the King County Council, a body notorious for its intense feuding, passed this budget 12-1.
Council members were quick to credit Phillips' leadership for their harmony. He created a bipartisan budget advisory group and made sure council members' district needs were addressed. Phillips' budget also reprioritized county spending: It made cuts in the jail budget $6.1 million deeper than recommended by King County Executive Ron Sims, a liberal Democrat, and redirected most of the money to human services. While some jaded observers claim it's easy for the council to get along when there's no money to fight over, others say the budget showed Phillips has the political skill to be a strong contender for County Executive should Sims step aside or move to higher office.
Progressive Democrats like council members Larry Gossett, D-Central Area, and Dwight Pelz, D-Rainier Valley, made common cause with conservative Republicans like Rob McKenna, R-Bellevue, and Kathy Lambert, R-Redmond, to save human services and ding the jail.
What gives? Why are conservative council members supporting human services, while a liberal executive is fighting for the jail?
The cynics say it's all about politics: Republicans are bent on opposing Sims, no matter what the issue. For his part, Sims is so focused on a run for governor that he is leery of seeming soft on crime.
While politics can never be dismissed entirely as a motive for politicians, the cynical view misses important dimensions of the debate.
All the conservative Republicans who voted for the budget talked about "heart" as a factor. Working at the King County Courthouse, council members come face to face with human need and suffering every day. The Courthouse is filled with all manner of humanity: the mentally ill, the homeless, and the downtrodden. That day-to-day experience really does affect one's point of view, the Republicans say.
INCREASING SOCIAL services and reducing jail funding also appeals to the fiscal conservatism of the GOP, McKenna points out. The county contracts out the social services in question, something McKenna would like to see government do more. The agencies that provide the services have lower overhead than the county because they are nonunion, he notes with satisfaction. "We give this money to these great nonprofits who are run like businesses," say McKenna. In other words, social- services funding takes money from government and gives it to entrepreneurs.
McKenna also believes this money represents a wise investment. "It's empirical fact," he states, that putting money up front into food banks, community health clinics, domestic-violence prevention, and the like saves society money in the long run.
Human-services advocates should take note of McKenna and his arguments. Both could come in very handy as advocates try to protect human services as the Legislature trims $2.5 billion out of the state budget next month.
"What we are doing is child's play compared with the state," says Sims. Even so, the county executive hardly feels as if he is playing a game as he faces difficult budget trade-offs. When asked about his proposals to cut human services, he says, "I don't have any easy choices anymore—all I have is budget holes." He claims human-services providers are asking him to choose between protecting their services and laying off more county employees. He claims the county laid off 120 people last year. "Do you think that's fun?" he asks pointedly. Sims talks passionately about when he lost his own job and tried to find work in the midst of a recession.
Observers have also pointed out that Sims' advocacy for the jail has to do with "ownership." Other aspects of the county's criminal-justice system have their own elected champions—Sheriff Dave Reichert, Prosecutor Norm Maleng, and presiding Superior Court Judge Richard Eadie—but Sims directly runs the jail through his appointments.
PARTY LINES REAPPEAR more traditionally as King County looks to the future. This year's budget was a one-time fix and did not solve the long-term financial problems of county government. Sims, Phillips, and most Democrats are united in their desire to get new taxing authority from the state Legislature. They point out that cities can levy taxes on utilities and businesses that the county cannot. New revenues are necessary for the county to operate even a stripped-down form of government, they argue. Republicans like McKenna are not convinced. They want to see more efficiency in government, particularly in union contracts, before they will support new taxes.
The ongoing money crisis might well force both sides to rethink their traditional wisdom on those points.