November 7, 2010 in Opinion

Editorial: State budget fixes need cooperation, right now


Budget writers in Olympia got no help from voters on Tuesday, so now their task grows even tougher.

Initiative 1098, the income tax on the wealthy, was bludgeoned.

Initiative 1107, which repealed the taxes on candy, soda and bottled water, passed.

Initiative 1053 also sailed to victory, meaning both chambers of the Legislature must gain two-thirds approval for any tax increase or send proposed hikes to voters. We’ve just witnessed how receptive they are to those.

So now what?

The Legislature was already peering down a scary budget hole, but now that voters have stripped away the tax increases it’s even deeper.

This will be the third consecutive session that lawmakers have had to make painful cuts. It’s fashionable to say they must get creative and “think outside the box.” But even that might not be enough.

They might have to crush the box and build it from scratch – or consider whether a box is the best container.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has formed a Committee on Transforming Washington’s Budget. According to the Washington Policy Center, which is a participant, the panel is charged with answering three key questions about every state program:

1. “Is a particular function required by law? If a program is not mandatory, can we reduce or eliminate it?”

2. “If it is mandatory, can we change the law that requires it? If we can’t change it, can someone else provide the same service?”

3. “Does the program benefit a narrow constituency or serve the broader public? If a program is narrowly targeted, can those who benefit from it pay a fee to support it?”

The panel also compiled nearly 75 recommendations, though there wasn’t consensus on all of them.

A small sampling: Seek waivers for Medicaid spending that might not make sense; place the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction under the governor, instead of keeping it as an elected position with its own bureaucracy; fund college students on a per credit basis and pay for degree completion rather than student enrollment; increase privatization and outsourcing of services.

The Washington Roundtable, a group of state business leaders, has also passed detailed recommendations for paring government.

One area that demands more than the current tinkering is a firm rollback of pay and benefit packages for state workers. Taxpayers simply can’t afford the current compensation levels.

State leaders need to get started on this right away. Republican legislative leaders are calling for a meeting of all caucus leaders and their budget experts with the governor’s office. Gregoire should take them up on it. Voters have increased Republican numbers in the statehouse, and their voices should be heard.

This is a critically important time in the state’s history. No single party should provide all the solutions or take all the blame. It’s going to take bipartisan brainstorming and disciplined follow-through to set government on a sustainable path.

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