This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Washington voters could hardly have been crueler to the Legislature’s Democrats.
On Tuesday, the electorate left the Democrats in charge of the House of Representatives and Senate – although with shrunken majorities.
At the same time, the citizens repealed new taxes on soda, bottled water and candy that had barely – and only temporarily – balanced the budget.
After those taxes were enacted, increasingly pessimistic economic forecasts had thrown the budget into a $500 million-plus shortfall through June. The shortfall for the 2011-2013 biennium had been estimated at $4.5 billion. The repeal of the new taxes added $272 million to what was already a dire fiscal crisis.
Deliverance might have come in the form of the new income tax proposed by Initiative 1098. But the voters drop-kicked that idea into British Columbia, rejecting the initiative by a massive, don’t-ask-me-again margin.
They also slammed shut the door on other new revenues sources by passing Initiative 1053, also by an overwhelming margin. I-1053 restored a suspended requirement that any tax increase must be approved by two-thirds of the Legislature or be put to the voters.
Because the two-thirds threshold was enacted by initiative, lawmakers cannot immediately tinker with it except with a two-thirds vote – a double ring of defense.
For lawmakers, the one virtue of this predicament is clarity. No need to argue about taxes.
Barring an unforeseen and unlikely bailout from the federal government, the entire shortfall must be carved out of existing spending. If there’s fat in that spending, it’s eluded discovery by budget writers who’ve already carved billions out of state programs since the recession began.
So the Democratic Legislature goes into the 2011 session with the task of strangling their darlings, of decimating services and programs – such as Medicaid, public education, health care for the working poor – they have nurtured and expanded for decades.
Not just cutting to the bone, but cutting the bone and amputating in some cases. The one certainty is that most of their constituencies will be infuriated by the end of the session.
The compensation of state employees must be on the table. They may not be overpaid in most cases, but the choice will come down to preserving their benefits or preserving the safety net for the poorest and neediest Washingtonians. Lawmakers with a social conscience won’t throw distressed families, the disabled and the mentally ill to the wolves.
The sooner lawmakers start making these agonizing choices, the more money they will be able to set aside for the next biennium.
The Republican leaders of the Senate and House, Mike Hewitt and Richard DeBolt, have just proposed bipartisan meetings to identify cuts for quick legislative action. If Hewitt and DeBolt are really offering to put Republican fingerprints on a budget of blood and tears, Democrats would be fools to turn them down.