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Thu., Dec. 22, 2011, midnight

Editorial: Proposal reminds us programs have a price

Imagine a set of lawmakers creating new programs without a care as to how they will be funded.

OK. We already have Congress. No imagination required.

But we also have us, Washington voters, who go about doing the same thing every time we support an initiative that will add millions to state costs.

Take, for example, the recently passed Initiative 1163. The measure requires more extensive training for those who provide in-home care to the disabled and elderly. The cost to the state: $15.3 million for the remainder of this biennium, and $31 million over the next six years.

Washington, with a $1 billion- plus budget shortfall, has no money to pay for new training. Funding I-1163 will mean that much less for other programs that feed or provide health care to the disadvantaged. Proposed legislation that would delay its implementation for two years should be enacted.

So, too, should Senate Joint Resolution 8218, which would put before voters an amendment to the Washington Constitution requiring future initiatives to identify a funding source if the measure would impose new costs on the state. If, say, voters want fewer students in each classroom, they must also approve a half-cent increase in the state sales tax to pay for more teachers.

In fact, voters in 2000 strongly approved I-728, which called for smaller class sizes. That has not happened because the state has not had the money to make it happen. Even with a turnaround in Washington’s economy, chances are slim more teachers will be hired to teach fewer kids. If anything, the Legislature needs to backfill cuts made in higher education the last few years before it turns to K-12 funding.

Money is so tight Gov. Chris Gregoire has, in effect, proposed a reverse-SJR 8218. If voters will approve a one-half cent increase in the state sales tax, she will back off cuts in education that would shorten the school year by four days and/or reduce or eliminate levy equalization dollars vital to many Eastern Washington school districts.

The Legislature did not bite on that idea during this month’s special session, but the tougher cuts to balance the budget have yet to be made. Lawmakers might also be mindful that voters spiked Initiative 884 in 2004. Backers were seeking a full-cent, $1 billion increase in the sales tax to support education. Will they buy a half-measure now, in a much tougher economy?

That vote, and last year’s smothering of a state income tax, and another on bottled water, pop and candy, indicate just how enthusiastically Washington voters reject further state trespass of their pocketbooks. Yet costly initiatives like 1163 and 728 garnered more than 60 percent of votes cast.

There’s an obvious disconnect that SJR 8218 would go a long way towards eliminating. But voters could reject it, too, and go on pretending the good new things they want don’t come with a bad ol’ price tag.

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