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Forced bipartisanship paid dividends in state budget

Post by TNT Editorial Board / The News Tribune on April 14, 2012 at 6:11 pm |
April 13, 2012 6:13 pm

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

It took four months of dithering and denial, but the 2012 Legislature actually produced a respectable spending plan on Wednesday. With a few bonuses thrown in.

Creative political tension gets much of the credit.

The Legislature – with Democratic majorities controlling both chambers – initially seemed headed for a budget that promised to perpetuate a habit of unsustainable spending.

The House’s original plan included a play to spend some of the next biennium’s revenues in this biennium. This would have added hundreds of millions of dollars to any shortfall the 2013 Legislature might face – the very pattern of deferred reckoning that has left Washington with a perennial fiscal crisis.

Spenders also dominated the Democratic caucus in the Senate. But three fiscally conservative Democratic senators – including Jim Kastama of Puyallup – bolted, throwing their votes to the GOP caucus. With the help of these Road Kill Democrats, the Senate wound up passing a much more disciplined – if harsher – spending plan.

Gov. Chris Gregoire proved to be the catalyst that made the chemistry work. She mediated between Republicans and Democrats and demanded results. Plus, her office floated an arcane scheme that will allow the state to briefly claim ownership of sales tax collections before the money is be disbursed to local governments.

That creates a $238 million credit for the general fund ­– yet cities and counties won’t notice the difference. It’s as close as you get to magic. As many times as the state budget has been turned upside down and shaken for a few million bucks, it’s a wonder no one thought of this one before.

The accounting maneuver, plus a sweet little up-tick in the economy, created an opening for something that seemed beyond reach a month ago: a budget with no further cuts to higher education or the public schools, no sweeping loss of medical insurance for the poor, and no fiscal raids on the next biennium.

Pierce County won’t face the closure of wards at Western State Hospital. A deferral of the state sales tax on the second Narrows Bridge will give toll-payers a small break. Social services got nickeled and dimed, but things could have been a whole lot worse.

The Senate Republicans and Road Killers held out for some fiscally prudent concessions as the clock was running out Wednesday, including a constitutional debt limit and restrictions on early retirement for future state employees.

Most important, future lawmakers will find it harder to create unsustainable spending obligations, thanks to a measure sponsored by Kastama. This law will require the Legislature to balance the estimated cost of state services with estimated state revenues over a four-year look-ahead instead of the current two years.

Just one anxiety: Lawmakers left town with just $320 million in reserve – barely more than 1 percent of the operating budget. The economy hiccups once, and that money vanishes. Never say that this Legislature refused to expand gambling.

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