Even in a hearty economy, writing a state budget demands prioritization. This year it’s more like triage.
So when Washington Secretary of State Sam Reed and Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed suspending the presidential primary election for 2012, it may have looked like evidence of just how desperate the state is to protect all the loose change it could.
Actually, taxpayers ought to ask why the idea is being described as a temporary fix. The estimated savings are a paltry $10 million, but there will always be better ways to spend it than by bankrolling an essentially meaningless exercise.
Washington got by for years without a presidential primary, largely because major party leaders wouldn’t entrust the selection of their nominee to the state’s tradition of political independence. In 1989, voters established a presidential primary through the initiative process, but parties can ignore it and mostly do. Just as they used to in 1988 and earlier, partisan caucuses and conventions determine who will get Washington’s support when the national nominations are decided.
Washington’s election is more pageant than primary.
Not that that’s widely understood. Every presidential election year some Washington voters are startled to learn, after casting a ballot, that it didn’t count for anything.
Washingtonians nevertheless cherish those ballots as much as any American, so elected officials such as Reed and Gregoire don’t like to deprive them. Thus, if lawmakers pass Senate Bill 5119 to cancel the 2012 presidential primary, the ceremonial vote will return in 2016.
So will the cost, which will be higher in 2016 than $10 million. The fiscal impact of such a law is calculated according to such variables as the number of voters, the cost of printing and postage, and the salaries of elections workers – all factors on the rise. The 2008 primary cost 52 percent more than the 2000 primary (it was canceled in 2004 to save money). It added up to $2.36 per ballot in 2008.
Such numbers are petty cash in a multibillion-dollar state budget, but that doesn’t make it a reasonable state role. If anything, the governor and the Legislature need to resolve the current budgetary dilemma with an eye to the future. The challenge might not be as daunting today if the state hadn’t encumbered itself with that and many other similiarly dubious expectations.
During an economic slump and after it ends, the state budget should be an expression of authentic governmental priority. The state needs to get fiscal control of itself and concentrate on essentials.
We lived without a presidential primary before 1992. It was canceled in 2004. Both the governor and the secretary of state – the state’s top election officer – think it should be canceled again in 2012. The political parties disregard it.
How can that be an authentic priority of government?