This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
The state budget – already a disaster last winter – now borders on catastrophe. The responsible action is exactly the one lawmakers are doing their best to avoid: Coming back to Olympia with solutions.
State revenues are getting slammed from three directions.
First, there’s the $480 million in expected federal bailout money the 2010 Legislature built into its budget. So far, Congress has not delivered, and there’s a big chance it won’t deliver.
Second, tax collections from a supposedly recovering economy are falling alarmingly short of projections, potentially gouging another $200 million or more out of state funding.
Third, there’s a self-perpetuating structural gap between revenues and spending that’s expected to produce a $3 billion shortfall by the time the 2011 Legislature convenes in January.
Oh yes – a fourth. If voters this November approve an initiative that would repeal the taxes the 2010 Legislature approved, another $300 million could be siphoned from the revenue stream over the next three years.
The default plan for dealing with an emergency like this is a punt to the governor. If Congress doesn’t come through with the $480 million next month, and if state lawmakers don’t provide her with any direction, Gov. Chris Gregoire will have to impose a across-the-board cuts on unprotected state spending. (Basic education, for example, would be off limits.)
The cuts would run an estimated 3 to 5 percent. That may sound small, but many of the threatened programs have already been slashed repeatedly as the recession has tightened.
The punt is politically attractive: Gregoire trims everything equally, exercising no discretion because only the Legislature is permitted to set budget priorities. She can’t be blamed for what she does – the law gives her no choice. And legislators get a complete pass, ducking tough decisions as election day looms.
The problem: Across-the-board cuts are the worst possible kind of cuts in these circumstances. No kind of common sense enters into the decision. Agencies that protect children from getting their bones broken and the mentally ill from sleeping on sidewalks are cut as deeply as state liquor stores.
Neither the governor nor the Democratic legislative leadership appears to have any stomach for another round of painful economies so close to an election. The official story is that the Legislature’s budget writers can’t get their act together on such short notice.
Thought experiment: If lawmakers were going to be rewarded at the polls for patching up the budget, would they still think there wasn’t enough time to get the job done?
Every week of delay puts the state into a deeper hole and makes the eventual solution that much costlier and more painful. Lawmakers have no more important job than balancing the budget. If that check from Congress doesn’t come through, they should not betray that responsibility by running for the hills.