This editorial will appear in Thursday’s print edition.
In slightly more than two weeks, state legislators will gather in Olympia for the 2010 session – and the unpleasant task of dealing with a $2.6 billion budget hole.
Lawmakers will likely consider a combination of yet more cuts to state government and services, and targeted tax and user fee increases. Two givens: Almost nothing they do will be popular with everybody, and everything they do will set off one interest group or another.
So they’d be smart to take advantage of at least a bit of cover offered by state Auditor Brian Sonntag. Last week, he released the “Opportunities for Washington” report, a performance review of state government that outlines several strategies for saving money, streamlining programs and providing better service.
Some of the auditor’s suggestions probably won’t ruffle too many feathers. For instance, he suggests amnesty for delinquent debts as a way to bring unregistered businesses into the state tax system. And the Department of Social and Health Services could recover more Medicaid pharmacy overpayments if it expanded its cost-effective audit program.
Other ideas, however, are certain to take flak because they would affect employees represented by unions and covered by existing collective bargaining agreements. He proposes, for example, to pull in up to $350 million over five years by selling the state liquor-distribution center and auctioning liquor-sale licenses to private businesses. In other words, get the state out of liquor sales – something that has been talked about for years but has never gotten very far.
That proposal and others made in the report would require the Legislature to simply the state’s competitive contracting law. So cost benefits would be longer-term and not much help with the current budget crisis. But others – like expanding the DSHS audit program – probably could be implemented fairly quickly.
At the very least, lawmakers should consider the auditor’s ideas and figure out what’s doable short-term and what will take more time. And in making their decisions on what to cut and what to seek higher taxes for, they should ask the kind of questions the auditor’s office asked in drawing up the recommendations. Questions like: Is the program or service a core function of government? If not, could it be scaled back, made more efficient or eliminated? Could some programs be transferred to the public sector?
In good times, those questions probably wouldn’t get asked and programs would either be maintained or even expanded. Lawmakers should look at the next session as an opportunity to look at state government, at what works and what doesn’t, what’s essential and what’s not.
It won’t make their job any easier, but it could help save some of the programs the state’s poorest and most vulnerable citizens depend on.