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Yes on SJR 8206: If only we’d had it 10 years ago

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Oct. 24, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
October 24, 2011 2:59 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Two proposed amendments to the Washington Constitution are on the November ballot, one a simple bit of legal housekeeping, the other a crucial demand for spending discipline.

Senate Joint Resolution 8205 is the housekeeper. It would repeal an obsolete 60-day residency requirement for voting, bringing the law in line with a U.S. Supreme Court ruling forbidding requirements of more than 30 days.

End of story. Pass it.

Senate Joint Resolution 8206 is much bigger. It proposes to curb the boom-and-bust cycle that has plagued state budgeting for decades.

Historically, the Legislature has pretty much spent whatever money came its way without much thought to the future. During the boom years, spending boomed. During the bust years, the Legislature has been forced to bust programs it boomed when things were flush.

Made no sense, but that’s what lawmakers – particularly Democrats – do when they’ve got a surplus and powerful lobbies clamoring for a piece of it.

The Legislature and citizens of Washington finally attempted to smooth out the ups and downs in 2007 by creating a constitutionally mandated “budget stabilization account,” better known as the rainy day fund.

Oh, that they had done it sooner and better. The recession began in late 2007,
and the rainy day fund – which peaked at something over $400 million – was soon depleted by waves of economic troubles.

SJR 8206 reflects a lesson learned in the school of hard knocks. It would require that much of the surpluses generated in times of “extraordinary revenue growth” be stashed in the piggy bank.

Washington’s last period of “extraordinary revenue growth” happened in the 2005-2007 biennium. (It seems like ages ago at this point.) Had SJR 8206 been in effect at the time, $1.5 billion or more would have wound up in the rainy day fund – available to cushion some of the body punches higher education and other essential programs have taken since then.

One of the measure’s champions, Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli, makes an additional point: Money socked away in the fund could not be spent expanding programs in the first place.

Without the unsustainable expansions, there’d be that much less to cut when the economy goes sour. In terms of budget distress during hard times, the initial savings are effectively doubled.

The time to pass this measure is now, when the folly of the feast-and-famine cycle is all too painfully apparent. Then we can all look forward to the happy day when “extraordinary revenue growth” triggers this prudent amendment.

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