This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
Washington state didn’t so much dodge a bullet last week as blunt its force.
Democratic leaders called U.S. House members back from recess to pass a $26 billion state bailout, which the president promptly signed. Washington’s share is roughly $540 million, which should have been enough to forestall a crisis for the budget state lawmakers built on the premise of federal help.
But the same lagging economic recovery that helped create the need for the Hail Mary from Congress is also dragging down state revenues. Worse-than-expected revenue collections have left just $72 million in reserves for the remaining 10 months of this budget cycle.
Next month, the state’s economists will revise their prediction of what the state can expect to have to spend. Gov. Chris Gregoire doesn’t anticipate getting good news. On Thursday, she told state agencies to brace themselves for across-the-board cuts of up to 7 percent.
We’ve said it twice before, and we’ll say it again: Why is this work being left to the governor, who is prevented by state law from exercising any discretion?
Where are the state lawmakers who are charged with setting the state’s spending priorities and could make targeted cuts? The answer: otherwise engaged with campaigning for re-election. Or, if you believe the party line, unable to muster consensus despite enjoying strong majorities in both chambers.
Try them. If Gregoire were to summon legislators back to Olympia for a special session to reconcile state spending with actual revenues, they would surely find a way to get the job done and get back to the campaign trail in short order.
Lawmakers have time: Gregoire figures state government needs to pare spending beginning Oct. 1. But lawmakers apparently would rather let the governor use her hatchet. They’ll tend to the wounded once they wander back to the Capitol in January.
That’s no way to write a budget and it’s no way to manage programs on which state residents, many of them vulnerable children and adults, rely.
Plus it could end up creating an even bigger hole in the budget. Should the governor have to make cuts of more than 4 percent in the higher-education budget, the state could jeopardize its eligibility for federal stimulus money.
Lawmakers fear making painful decisions weeks before they have to face voters. They would undoubtedly take some hits. But better they take their lumps than shirk their duty. Cowardice doesn’t sell well at the ballot box either.