For months, the Governor and Senate have been calling for an amendment to the state constitution to steer a little of the state's revenues into a hard-to-tap rainy day fund.
Virtually all lawmakers seem to agree that it's a good idea. You don't have to go back to far in history -- try three years -- to read about legislative hand-wringing and tooth-gnashing over billion-dollar-or-more budget shortfalls.
But House and Senate budget writers squared off this year over how much of a lockbox to build around the account. The Senate and Governor want to require a 60-percent vote of the Legislature, unless the economy sours or the governor declares an emergency, in which case a simple majority would be enough.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Helen Sommers, however, has argued throughout the session that there's no need for such a rigid restriction. Legislative common sense and self-restraint should be lockbox enough, she said.
On Monday, her committee flirted with the idea of a modified proposal that would have exempted from the 60-percent requirement money intended for some school programs. But after a long caucus with fellow Democrats behind closed doors, Sommers withdrew the amendment. The committee -- with Sommers and 10 other lawmakers voting no -- decided to go with the Senate version.
Here's what's proposed:
-1 percent of the state's general revenues would go into the fund every year. That's about $135 million a year, starting in fiscal year 2009.
-To tap it with a simple majority of the Legislature, forecasted job growth must be less than 1 percent,
-or the governor must declare an emergency to deal with a catastrophe "that necessitates government action to protect life or public safety."
-Otherwise, it takes a much-tougher 60 percent vote.
-Once the account exceeds 10 percent of state revenues -- something not expected to happen for about a decade at best -- any extra money would go into the state's school-construction fund.
Some lawmakers worry that the savings may be seen by citizens as a "surplus." That was part of the rallying cry behind Tim Eyman's Initiative 695: why are you paying hundreds of dollars in car-tab fees a year when government is sitting on billions?
Voters, not surprisingly, approved I-695.
"I think fiscal responsibility is great, but I don't think the public, in the end, is terribly supportive of this level of fiscal responsibility," said Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park.
Miscellanea: Best moment during Monday's Appropriations hearing: When Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget director, Victor Moore, prefaced the answer to a lawmaker's question with a light joke: "I'm proud to say I am not an economist..."
Unfortunately, the lawmaker in question happened to be Rep. Jim McIntire, D-Seattle, who is famously proud of being, yes, an economist.
As lawmakers roared with laughter, Moore, a longtime Appropriations staffer, stammered out an apology. But McIntire, who was among those laughing, waved it off as unnecessary.