Wallet - NoHoDamonAfter the state approved steep tuition hikes to fill a massive budget shortfall this year, the cost of Derrick Skaug’s education at Washington State University jumped by nearly $900.

So the sophomore who juggles schoolwork with two jobs moved to an apartment off campus—a much cheaper, though significantly less convenient, alternative to the dorms.

“There are some people taking out extra loans,” said Skaug, whose tuition bill will rise 30 percent over two years. “Some of my friends have gone to community college to save money.”

All six of the state’s four-year schools approved the 30 percent tuition increases. That’s left students and their families scrambling to cover the ballooning costs. The Higher Education Coordinating Board reports that applications for financial aid are up 23 percent at community colleges and universities. Twice as many students are applying for help at some schools than in the past.

And the students are arguably getting less while paying more: many institutions are cutting teachers, staff, and course offerings. WSU, for one, is eliminating entire liberal arts departments.

Government budgets hammered by the down economy are leading to across-the-board cuts in services for cities, counties, and the state. If Initiative 1033, the new measure from Tim Eyman, is approved, those reductions become the new baseline for future budgets, locking in recessionary spending levels indefinitely.

Although the initiative would reduce taxes for property owners, it will also raise other costs. Anyone hoping to send a kid to college, public employees, small business owners, and the working poor will all take a hit to their pocketbooks.

That includes firefighters in Vancouverand Longviewwho have given up pay raises. Across the state this year, cities and counties have balanced their budgets through layoffs and furloughs that force employees to take unpaid leave.

In Aberdeen, for instance, city employees rolled back salaries and essentially agreed to take two weeks off without pay, among other cuts. From Franklin to Snohomish counties, families will struggle with reduced paychecks that accompany furloughs. With less money to spend on groceries or books or back-to-school clothes, less money will flow through the local economy.

In Seattle’s South Park neighborhood, residents and a collection of small businesses—restaurants, markets, electrical suppliers—depend on a rickety 78-year-old drawbridge over the Duwamish River. It’s a key link between lower-income neighborhoods and industrial job centers. But King County recently announced that if additional funding isn’t found to replace the corroded and crumbling bridge, it will be shut down next year.

Since voters in 2007 rejected a regional transportation funding package, the county is looking for an additional $99 million to replace the South Park Bridge in a year when it faces a nightmare budget shortfall.

“The loss of that bridge will kill a lot of those businesses down there,” said architect and South Park resident Geoff Belau. “But it’ll affect the entire region.”

If the bridge closes, an additional 20,000 vehicles—including 2,800 trucks—will be dumped onto I-5, State Route 99 and State Route 509. That means more traffic for Boeing commuters, people doing business in Seattle, or anyone catching a flight at the airport.

“If you choke the county back to their bare operational minimum,” said Belau, “you’re going to end up with a long laundry list of projects like this one that…have almost no hope of getting funding. Things are going to start falling apart.”

Already, the state’s health care safety net is unraveling. A shortfall in the state’s coffer led to a 43 percent budget cut this year in Washington’s health plan for the poor.

That forced a painful decision: Do you drop people from the plan—and if so, whom? Or do you raise the cost of participating, thereby squeezing some folks off? Washington State Health Care Authority, the agency running the program serving close to 100,000 low-income residents, opted for the latter. Beginning next year, enrollees’ monthly fees will nearly double to $61.60 on average. Annual deductibles will go from $150 to $250.

The goal is to reduce the number of participants to about 75,000, with some shifting to Medicaid and others simply quitting the program and losing their access to affordable health care. To qualify for the program—and there’s a long waiting list of people eager to join—a family of four must earn less than $44,000 a year.

These cuts create lasting harm to the region’s economy and families. Deferred medical care could lead to unnecessary suffering and the need for more expensive treatments in the future. The failure to invest in infrastructure such as bridges could put the public at risk, or choke the region’s economic engine by restricting transit and commerce. Ever higher tuitions will force young people to take on large debts—or simply put education beyond reach for some students.

“We’re here to better the workforce when we get out of here,” said WSU sophomore Joshua Hart, a pre-business major.

“It won’t do us any good if we have a less educated public.”

Empty wallet photo courtesy of Flickr user NoHoDamon under a Creative Commons license.