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Opinion

Wed., Dec. 7, 2011

Editorial: Lawmakers must act or cede power to governor

If it’s true that lawmakers in Olympia won’t make the necessary budget cuts until they convene their regular session in January, then it reinforces the point that the governor needs more year-round discretion over the budget.

At present, Gov. Chris Gregoire can only make across-the-board cuts, which prevents her from setting priorities and making smarter decisions. If legislators don’t want to cede some of their budgetary power, they better use it during this special session.

Kicking decisions into the next month will only exacerbate the problem.

Marty Brown, the state’s budget director, made a clear, concise case for immediate action in an email sent to legislators:

“Every day that goes by, we can’t get that money back. Your state agencies need time to put into effect the policy and budget changes that affect clients and providers all over the state. Faced with all this, I do want to say that time is of the essence.”

However, key legislative budget leaders have expressed doubt that enough votes can be rounded up to act on the governor’s proposed cuts during the special session.

The state spends $41 million a day. Multiply that by the hang time on a legislative punt, and that’s significant money that can’t be recouped. Furthermore, if a half-cent sales tax is to be part of the mix, then a referendum needs to be crafted and placed in front of the voters soon.

Even with a revenue boost, lawmakers must make a lot of painful cuts. Enacting the reductions called for by the governor was always going to be difficult, but many of those savings are predicated on January implementation, Brown noted. Delaying darkens the picture.

The Legislature is facing a $1.4 billion shortfall, though the governor is wisely assuming the worst in calling for $2 billion in cuts. Lawmakers were given fair warning they’d need to deal with this after the November budget forecast. Nothing is on the horizon that can change the bad news.

We’re not suggesting this will be easy (and for those who think it is, try the budget calculator at the League of Education Voters’ website – educationvoters.org), but postponing the inevitable would be irresponsible.

Lawmakers have cleared their calendars, rearranged their personal affairs and made it to Olympia. Might as well get some work done.

If not, they ought to at least amend the state statute that constrains the governor’s ability to alter the budget while the Legislature is not in session. Idaho gives its governor the leeway to get right to work when the budget numbers don’t add up. If the permanence of this executive power is the holdup, then affix a sunset clause.

Washington legislators must do the job immediately, or let the governor act.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

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