This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
Lawmakers have often promised to bring a hard-nosed, results-oriented, “everything on the table” approach to writing the state budget.
Occasionally they’ve partially delivered. Mostly they’ve claimed they were delivering while leaving sacred cows untouched.
This time is different. As of last week’s revenue forecast, state government was short $900 million of what it needs to continue the state’s existing programs and services at existing levels. It is short a staggering $5.7 billion over the biennium that begins in July. And that’s after the 2010 Legislature made tough cuts in some programs.
The immediate challenge is to carve the $900 million out of the current biennial budget – close to a billion dollars worth of pain crammed into seven short months. Gov. Chris Gregoire has already covered $520 million of that, crudely, by imposing 6.3 percent across-the-board cuts.
That’s the worst possible way to cut a budget, but she was forced to do it because lawmakers refused to meet in special session to make adjustments last summer. Their foot-dragging made the problem considerably worse.
Gregoire’s now talking about a special session in early December to deal with the new, additional $385 million shortfall. That translates into another 4.6 percent the governor would otherwise have to impose – without reason, sense or priorities – in the absence of legislative guidance.
There shouldn’t even be an argument about the special session. Waiting until the regular session begins in January will likely result in the usual two months or more of dithering and dawdling before lawmakers cobble together a supplemental budget.
Do it fast. Do it now. It’s amazing what can be accomplished with the help of a short, hard deadline.
After some equivocation a year ago, Gregoire now appears thoroughly committed to a ruthlessly rigorous approach to spending priorities. She walks, talks and acts like the budget hawk Washington needs in the governor’s mansion right now.
On Thursday, she ordered the state unions to open their existing contracts for renegotiation. Her office has served notice that new contracts, negotiated but not yet finalized, cannot be included in the 2011-2013 budget – because the money’s just not there. When the state’s leading Democrat is facing down organized labor – the state’s leading Democratic constituency – you know things are grim.
The Legislature’s highest priorities ought to be preserving the safety net, as much as humanly possible, for the state’s most vulnerable citizens: the mentally ill, abused children, the disabled and others who cannot fend for themselves. And preserving higher education opportunities for Washingtonians whose talents are essential to the state’s economic future.
Everything’s got to be on the table this time. Really on the table.