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Still waiting for a reality-based budget from Olympia

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on Feb. 22, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
February 22, 2012 5:17 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Want a refresher on how the Legislature dug itself into such a deep, deep fiscal pit in recent years? Read the proposed budget the House of Representatives released Tuesday.

When the session began, the ostensible job of the Democratic majority’s budget-writers was to deal with a state revenue shortfall of roughly $1.5 billion through the end of the 2011-2013 biennium. Last fall, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed doing it the hard way: by deeply cutting state services – eliminating whole programs in some cases – and asking voters to “buy back” the most painful losses with a tax increase.

The world outside state government has since come to the rescue. The economy has ticked up, handing the Legislature an extra $97 million in projected revenue. And diminished demand for some state services have yielded another $340 million. The $1.5 billion problem has been downsized to a $1.1 billion problem.

The House has found a way to downsize it further. It proposes no tax increase and no nuking of entire programs. Instead, it would nibble here and nibble there on services. To keep things as painless as possible, it simply waves a magic wand and declares that the next biennium will write a $405 million check for this biennium’s school expenses.

Presto. Budget balanced, just like that.

House budget writers have been getting accolades from some interest groups who feared they’d fare far worse. Well, of course. When you pretend that $405 million of the problem doesn’t exist, it gets a lot easier to keep people happy.

The hope is that, after more than four dismal years, good times are just around the corner. The reality is that we’ve had that same hope for those same four years, and the good times insist on hiding just over the horizon.

Washington’s lawmakers have struggled with one shortfall after another in part because they expanded state services so generously in the boom years, apparently ignoring the inevitability of a downturn. The reckoning arrived in the form of the Great Recession, and the Legislature hasn’t found its footing yet.

If the state economy and the Legislature’s spending stay on their current trajectories, lawmakers will face another crushing shortfall – $1.5 billion or more – when they return to Olympia next year.

They’ll have to write another crisis budget. If this year’s Legislature decides to kite a $405 million check, next year’s crisis will be $405 million worse.

Lawmakers have bridled at accusations that they’ve been dawdling on the budget since September, when the magnitude of the shortfall became apparent. Give us time, give us time, they said – it takes time to weigh all the options and make such hard choices.

Five months later, the hard choices are still looking scarce.

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