San Juan County gets the short end of state's spending stick

If the old familiar saying is true—that it's better to give than to receive — then San Juan County is by far the best.

Of Washington state's 39 counties, San Juan is dead last in a county-by-county comparison of what each contributes and what each gets back in spending from the state's general fund.

That's according to the Office of Financial Management, a data-driven state agency who's county-by-county, expenditure-revenue ratio report gives lawmakers from counties that provide more tax revenue than they receive, like King and San Juan, a bit more ammunition in the battle over spending cuts underway in Olympia.

Lawmakers must erase a projected $4.6 billion shortfall in crafting the state's next two-year budget.

"This strengthens the argument of why funding for the ferries is so important and why cutting service doesn't make a whole lot of sense," Sen. Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, said of the expense-versus-revenue disparity highlighted by OFM's report. "There is some buzz about (the report) and I'll be making sure it gets a little more."

While King County is the state's most populous, and San Juan is among the smallest, they're similar in that both depend heavily on ferry service and are, coincidentally, on the extreme short end of the state spending stick.

In 2008, for instance, San Juan County received 46 cents for every dollar of tax revenue it contributed into the state's general fund. King County, which generated nearly 42 percent of the state's $14.6 billion general fund that year, and No. 38 on OFM's report, received 62 cents for every dollar it sent Olympia's way.

State House Rep. Reuven Carlyle of King County, D-Seattle, believes the OFM numbers underscore an imbalance to consider as lawmakers wrestle with that multi-billion dollar budget gap. Carlyle is expected to introduce legislation this session that's links state spending to the percentage of revenue each county contributes.

Who would stand to lose?

That would be Ferry and Lincoln counties, ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively.

Located in the northeast corner of the state, Ferry County, population 7,800, received $3.15 for every dollar it contributed to the state general fund, while nearby Lincoln County, home to 10,344 residents, received $2.77 for every dollar of tax revenue it provided to the state.

True parity, Ranker said, needn't be an absolute in determining how tax dollars should be spent, particularly in the short-term.

He noted lawmakers are already faced with the possibility of having to eliminate 10,000 public-sector jobs and to slash services for low-income seniors and children to balance the biennial budget. That's without having to ensure that all counties are equal in the state spending equation.

Still, Ranker said San Juan County's status as a net-contributer deserves to be taken into account in the debate over funding and the fate the state ferry system.

"It strikes me as unfair and unjust to be talking about service cuts when San Juan County is paying far more than our fair share," he said.

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