In odd-numbered years, the Washington Legislature meets for 105 days to craft a budget for the two fiscal years that begin the following July 1. In even-numbered years, legislators meet for 60 days and their chores include a supplemental budget. In both cases, they stretch the budget work out until the final days.
On Saturday, legislators and the governor agreed on $590 million in cuts from the current 2009-2011 budget, and they did so in less than eight hours. Gov. Chris Gregoire found another $110 million in savings, for a total of $700 million. That’s a significant step toward closing a $1.1 billion shortfall for the budget that runs through June.
The key to this special session was that lawmakers left behind all of the usual drama and finger-pointing, and they worked together. The governor praised the cooperation, and legislative leaders on both sides made positive points about the process.
“Things do go better faster when there is a bipartisan agreement,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.
“The Legislature is at last moving in a positive direction,” said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield.
We’re not so naive as to think that the usual political gamesmanship will not take place when legislators gather again in January for their regular session. As Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, told the Seattle Times, “These were decisions that had to be made because of the shortness of time, and when we get into regular session (in January) I would not see this amicable love ship forever.”
It’s true that majority Democrats had their backs against the wall after pinning their hopes last session on tax increases and a rosier economic report. But voters rejected the tax hikes, and revenue forecasts have remained grim. To meet their constitutional mandate for a balanced budget, lawmakers needed to act quickly.
However, they still need to find $400 million to cover this year’s shortfall while trying to close a projected $4.6 billion gap in the next two-year budget. Democrats cannot count on new taxes or federal aid. They should not count on a quickly recovering economy.
They need to incorporate Republican ideas for a permanently smaller government.
Like most states, Washington is facing structural budget deficits. Legislators need to tear down and scale back the framework of government, not continually spackle over it.
It will be painful heavy lifting, even more than Saturday’s session, which slashed funding for health, education, welfare and many other areas. It won’t be easy, but it will be easier if there is a bipartisan agreement upfront to stay focused on the task and to minimize the drama. Both sides need to hold together as program advocates come forth to issue their pleas.
Legislators need to set the tone early that the theme of this upcoming budget session is about shrinking government, rather than preserving or restoring favored programs. They need to build on the momentum established Saturday.