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Belated damage control on a faltering budget

Post by Patrick O'Callahan on Dec. 9, 2010 at 7:52 pm |
December 9, 2010 6:08 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The silence you’ve been hearing for months is the response of the Legislature’s Democrats to Washington’s fiscal emergency.

Now, on Gov. Chris Gregoire’s orders, they are finally about to act. After putting the job off since August, Democrats will join Republicans on Saturday in a special session to squeeze state programs by roughly $1 billion before the current biennium ends on June 30.

The urgency of convening the Legislature for damage control is a matter of simple arithmetic. Revenue shortfalls and the voters’ repeal of new taxes demolished the spending plan lawmakers jury-rigged last April to tide state government through next June. The gulf between that plan and the revenues needed to cover it has been broadening dangerously since summer.

Had the Legislature acted in August, the impact of the shortfall could have been spread over 10 months. Now the $1 billion of pain will have to be shoehorned into six months.

Better late than later. Dawdling until the full-blown haggling of the regular session begins in January might end in a nuclear strike on programs that serve some of the neediest Washingtonians.

The result would have been unconscionable and needless damage to the social safety net, higher education and other unprotected categories of state spending. The damage will be bad enough as it is.

The special session’s task is not to overhaul the entire budget through June but to do enough to make ends meet. Lawmakers must do their utmost to spare services that are sustaining the disabled, elderly, mentally ill and vulnerable children (such as children in foster care).

Until recently, Gregoire had been the hero of the crisis, joining Republican budget hawks in looking for ways to constrain spending and twisting the arms of Democrats to come to Olympia and do likewise.

But the governor has hurt the cause immensely by backing off what seemed to be a serious demand that state workers pay more for their health insurance. She had told the Washington Federation of State Employees that they had to pick up 26 percent of their premiums – roughly in line with the private sector – instead of the indefensible 12 percent they now pay.

That was a bargaining position, of course, but it didn’t prove to be much of one. Last week, Gregoire settled for 15 percent, leaving WFSE leaders crowing about their victory.

Critical state services will be lost unless state workers swallow more hurt, both in this and the next biennium. That may not be fair, given the hits they’ve already taken, but it’s a brutal reality. Recessions aren’t fair to anyone.

The governor must get tough again. If she doesn’t hold the line in this crisis, it’s a sure bet that her party won’t, either.

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