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Senate budget delivers on promise of bipartisanship

Post by Kim Bradford on April 14, 2011 at 7:43 pm |
April 14, 2011 7:43 pm

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

In the state Senate, Washingtonians are getting a timely reminder of why bipartisanship matters.

Republican Sen. Joseph Zarelli – usually relegated to providing budget commentary from the sidelines – instead is front and center this year alongside the Senate’s chief budget writer, Democrat Ed Murray.

That the two men teamed up to write the Senate’s budget proposal this year was a bow to political and fiscal realities. The Senate Democrats don’t have enough votes to get their way, and state government doesn’t have the luxury of leaving moneysaving options on the table.

Whatever the practical considerations that brought them together, Murray and Zarelli have demonstrated the worth of lawmakers working across the aisle.

Their plan spends less than the House Democrats have proposed, doesn’t depend on accounting gimmicks or money not yet in hand, makes painful pay cuts more equitable and looks to head off future budget shortfalls.

One notable difference between the Senate budget and the House’s is the $300 million the House assumes it could make by privatizing a state-owned liquor distribution warehouse.

The Senate doesn’t bank on the money, and for good reason: The privatization proposal has a key provision allowing the state to walk away if the bidder can’t demonstrate the arrangement will financially benefit the state.

Zarelli, who filed a bill Thursday to allow the state to pursue leasing out its distribution system, said the budget could be later amended to include the money if it materializes.

But the biggest debate isn’t over liquor money, it’s over a smaller pot of money – the $251 million in savings the Senate budget assumes from cuts to teacher pay.

The Senate’s proposed 3 percent reduction in teacher salaries would mirror the planned 3 percent pay cut for state workers. (The Senate plan cuts pay even further for state employees who make $50,000 or more.)

School districts – and Gov. Chris Gregoire – fear that local teacher unions would successfully block any attempts to cut teacher pay, forcing districts to find the money elsewhere.

That’s a valid concern, but why should teachers be exempted from the sacrifices that others who are paid with state dollars are facing? It’s not easy to bargain changes in teacher contracts, but it’s not impossible either.

Teacher pay cuts, as well as a measure to lay off teachers based on performance instead of seniority, will be some of the hardest fought battles ahead for Senate negotiators.

But they aren’t the only traces of bipartisanship worth defending. The Senate budget also includes a more aggressive approach to contracting out services and has a strong focus on creating a more sustainable state government by paring long-term obligations and expanding the rainy day account.

The mere fact that those priorities are in the mix as lawmakers race towards an April 24 finish is a credit to the Senate and its implicit acknowledgment that no one political party has a monopoly on good ideas.

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