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Editorial: Washington Legislature must reduce size of government footprint

Another state revenue forecast, another $780 million gone.

The latest recalculation of anticipated tax collections in Washington, issued Thursday, doesn’t reveal genuine surprises as much as it intensifies a truth we have ignored too long. Namely, we expect too much of state government, which helps explain why we are an estimated $5.1 billion short of what it would take to maintain current programs through the 2011-’13 biennium.

Yes, the economy is still reeling from a stubborn recession. Home construction is stagnant. Yes, energy prices are on the rise. Yes, Japan’s natural disaster will leave a damaging impression on our international commerce.

All those causes have had a hand in our predicament, and someday they will ease, allowing Washington’s economy to revive. But that doesn’t mean the state should turn now to strategies for riding out the bad times and expect to return to our bloated, overreaching past.

This legislative session needs to grapple with immediate demands, but it also must address long-term challenges. That will require a package of responses that include permanent reductions in the scope of government.

Substantial privatization efforts are an obvious place to start. State-run activities such as printing, landscaping and, yes, liquor distribution and retail sales are among areas where the state could tap into private business’s ability to achieve efficiencies, create jobs and generate tax revenues – all while reducing the state’s overhead burden.

Meanwhile, the collective bargaining process with public employees would benefit from actual participation by the Legislature, which is limited now to merely approving or rejecting agreements, often overly generous, that the governor’s office has reached with union groups.

Those kinds of structural approaches should be undertaken even as House and Senate budget writers make difficult decisions about where to pare spending, knowing that many worthy services have to be trimmed.

Lawmakers will hear compelling pleas from passionate advocates, often their own constituents. The money isn’t there, however, and proposing general tax increases would be a waste of time. Desperation has already driven some members of the Legislature to consider reckless bookkeeping gimmicks that amount to borrowing against future resources.

Rather than push present problems further down the road, state lawmakers will best serve the voters by redesigning state government to accept a limited but realistic role, encourage economic development in the private sector and live within its means.


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