This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
Gov. Chris Gregoire is sounding the right notes in her hard-nosed plan to resize state government to fit post-recession reality.
The test is whether she can carry the tune against the cacophony it’s bound to stir.
Gregoire has an advantage: State lawmakers are flat out of options. The state budget was already on an unsustainable path before the economy took a header and expedited the inevitable reckoning.
Now the budget patches that have kept Washington state in the black are beginning to fray. Congress is growing weary of propping up the states, lawmakers are running out of state accounts to raid and a potential tax revolt is brewing.
The next Legislature faces another $3 billion gap to fill – and no easy outs.
State lawmakers aren’t known for looking much beyond the next election, but if they were, they’d realize they could spare themselves and the state a lot of pain if they’d stop letting tax receipts dictate their spending.
Determining budget priorities by checking what’s in the wallet puts state spending on a roller coaster. The highs and lows are jarring – but even worse, they fuel the expectation that, even as state spending is plummeting, it soon will be climbing again.
Gregoire is proposing something better, albeit more wrenching: Recognize that state government cannot return to business as usual. Banish the expectation that every time the state gets a new dollar, it goes to replace the dollar lawmakers took to balance the last budget. Don’t just make cuts, make lasting changes in the way state government looks and operates.
At one time, that was a tune sung chiefly by Republicans. Now it must be a bipartisan concern if the state is to avoid financial ruin. After the Legislature gets done sewing up the $3 billion hole in the 2011-13 budget, it will immediately face another $9 billion shortfall in the following two-year plan.
Lowered expectations are not a temporary concession to the Great Recession; they are its legacy. State government is not immune from the reset forced upon so many sectors by the nation’s economic battering.
Skeptics have reason to be wary. This isn’t the first time Gregoire’s challenged lawmakers to sacrifice sacred cows. To date, the Legislature hasn’t had much of an appetite for killing pet programs.
Much will depend on whether Gregoire walks the walk. Her initiative must be more than an exercise in getting the public to recognize how tough the choices are. It has to produce real reforms that shape her own budget proposal.
Only that kind of leadership can move the Legislature to kick the habit of short-term fixes.