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Legislature’s last chance to show restraint

Post by Kim Bradford on March 13, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
March 13, 2010 4:15 pm

This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.

Biblical creation took seven days, including down time. Getting the Legislature to pass a responsible budget in the same time frame might take a miracle of similar proportions.

Gov. Chris Gregoire, in calling this week’s special session, gave lawmakers what amounts to an unofficial deadline. She wants the budget done in a week.

Nothing prevents the Legislature from lingering longer. Nothing restricts it from considering other legislation either. Nothing, that is, except good sense and self-preservation.

Special sessions cost money – up to $20,000 a day – and the state doesn’t have a lot of spare change sitting around these days.

There’s also the political cost of looking indecisive in an election year. The budget picture hasn’t changed considerably since the Legislature convened in January, yet Democrats have little consensus on how to bail out the state out of a $2.8 billion shortfall.

About the only thing lawmakers seem to agree on is that they don’t like the governor’s budget.

Her call for buying back critical programs with $600 million in new tax revenue has become little more than an opening bid on how much additional money the state should wring from taxpayers.

That’s unfortunate. Gov. Chris Gregoire’s plan wasn’t perfect, but its greater emphasis on paring the cost of state government might have helped drive passage of the government reforms needed to prevent more shortfalls.

Instead, the Senate – with a tax package that’s nearly 50 percent higher than the governor’s and includes an economy-crushing sales tax increase – now appears to be in the driver’s seat.

The reason: the Senate’s plan actually pencils out.

House budget writers bid lower – $680 million in new taxes – and avoided any general tax increase. But that’s where their restraint ended.

The House took a pass on furloughing state workers or passing along increases in employee health care premiums. It set aside an extra $1 billion for basic education and restored money to other well-intended programs the Senate and governor had seen fit to cut in this fiscal crisis.

As a result, the House’s budget is $70 million out of whack, perhaps more if its generous assumptions about how much federal aid is headed Washington’s way don’t prove true.

Such creative financing bodes ill for the special session. The House’s outsized appetite for spending and the Senate’s willingness to tax could be a match made in taxpayer hell.

Democratic leaders still have time to listen to the moderates within their own party who want to see more reliance on cuts and less on tax increases. The next seven days should be about state government getting by on less, not lawmakers getting away with more.

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