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Legislature must look beyond this year’s hurdle

Post by Kim Bradford on Jan. 9, 2010 at 10:33 pm |
January 14, 2010 9:04 am

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

The biggest danger of this year’s legislative session isn’t what lawmakers will consider necessary to close the $2.6 billion budget hole. It’s what they will consider unnecessary.

Tunnel vision is the sure-fire way to get in, get out and get on with campaigning for re-election. But if lawmakers don’t look beyond the current budget crisis, they will have invited future ones.

As it stands now, the state can expect a $7 billion deficit in 2011-2013. If legislators were to adopt Gov. Chris Gregoire’s devastating spending plan – and no one is thinking they will – that deficit would shrink by only about half.

The Legislature cannot simply cut-and-tax itself out of this problem. It must reform its way out.

That is a bipartisan mandate – whether you believe it’s the state’s tax system that needs an overhaul or state government itself,
you’re acknowledging that Washington does not have enough money to keep its promises.

The question, of course, is which gets scrutinized first: state spending or the tax system?

In our view, it must be spending. State government cannot begin to price its services without getting a true handle on what they cost. Sure, lawmakers know how much it takes to run state government in its current form, but that’s largely beside the point.

If the recession has taught this country anything, it’s to question assumptions. The Democrats in charge will never know what bargain they could drive for taxpayers until they stop defending the institution of state government at the expense of those it serves.

Take liquor sales. The state auditor suggests that the state could pull in $350 million over five years by selling the state liquor-distribution center and auctioning liquor-sale licenses to private businesses. The governor pooh-poohs the idea.

Or how about those Race to the Top dollars that the Democratic administration back in Washington, D.C., is eager to give any state that adopts proven education reforms? Washington’s not in the running, partly because this state has refused to tie teacher pay to performance.

Then there are the collective bargaining agreements that give many state workers raises of up to 5 percent and maintain their meager 12 percent contribution to their health care premiums. Democratic leaders say that’s all they could get from the unions.

Making fundamental changes to the way state government operates is never more difficult than in a 60-day legislative session. But it also is never more needed than this year.

Lawmakers of all people should be eager to head off another debate about whose ox gets gored to balance the budget. They can’t help but dole out pain this year, but they can spare themselves and the state future ordeals.

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