OLYMPIA – For the next three weeks, at a minimum, legislators will be throwing around the word “sustainable” more than a bunch of organic farmers hectoring an executive from Archer Daniels Midland.
It is the go-to cudgel for anyone who doesn’t like a budget proposal, and as Friday’s budget debate in the Senate showed, even when people help write a budget admit there’s plenty in it they don’t like. . .
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The Senate sent a $32.5 billion operating budget to the House of Representatives, which is likely to treat those 400-plus pages of spending directives like a Samurai warrior skit from an early Saturday Night Live episode, slicing it apart and producing a barely recognizable new version. Many senators who voted for the budget Friday will say that new budget is not sustainable. This will continue until the session ends around April 28, or some later point if they require a special session.
What sustainable means may be as dependent on the person speaking as that other common budget adjective, “bipartisan”, which is used by some to describe anything that has nearly all of my party and one of yours, but others insist may be used only to describe something with roughly equal support from both sides.
In its purest budget sense, sustainable means we can keep doing this same thing for years to come, and the state will have the money to do it. Because the Legislature must draw up a spending plan that balances over four years, even if it’s only authorizing spending for the next two, having a spending plan that keeps doing what one says it is kind of an important thing.
Thus, if a budget proposal wants to reach into one of the state’s many smaller pots of cash that are fed by a certain stream of money for a specific purpose, and use that money for a different purpose, someone might have the bad manners but good sense to haul the state’s butt into court and have a judge put a stop to it. Judges ordering the state to not spend money for certain things, or spend more money for other things, are such common occurrences that the cases are simply known by the name of the first plaintiff who did the butt hauling. A critic predicting such action would say the budget is not sustainable.
If the state were to place a tax on a product, and estimate a certain return from robust sales, then plan to spend that money without taking into account the fact that raising the price is likely to depress sales and tax revenue, a critic would say that’s not sustainable.
Because budget writing is a blending of crystal-ball gazing, values judging and check-book balancing, the state sometimes only knows if something is sustainable after it happens. Or doesn’t happen. The minority party usually says the majority party’s budget is not sustainable.
One thing is clear. For the next three weeks, and probably longer, what sustainable means is “I like my budget, yours stinks.”