Balancing budgets is difficult under any circumstances, but it can get downright gruesome when the economy won’t cooperate. What the double-overtime session of budgetary bloodletting in Olympia proved is that there is, indeed, more than one way to skin a cat, and that roadkill can avoid its usual fate.
To appreciate the finished product, it helps to rewind to November and December, when lawmakers were called in by the governor to work on the previous budget. Yes, that task was supposed to be wrapped up last spring, but the day after the adjournment gavel fell, a large, predictable hole instantly materialized. Then the economy failed to come along to fill it in.
This demonstrated, yet again, that hope is not a plan.
The Legislature would ultimately face up to this annual dilemma, thanks to three “roadkill” Democrats who refused to be mowed down by partisans.
For the new biennium, Gov. Chris Gregoire laid down a budgetary marker that called for draconian cuts, with the chance to buy back some of them with a sales tax increase and a new fee on oil. Lawmakers rejected both revenue proposals, but were still able to preserve Basic Health and the Disability Lifeline.
What’s different this time is that the Legislature took the first step down the path of honest, sustainable budgeting. That occurred only because three fiscally conservative Democratic senators crossed the aisle. They defected because that was the only hope for budget reform. Senate Republicans had put together a package of reforms, and now had the votes to insist on them.
Not all reforms made it through. Some were watered down. But some worthwhile changes were ultimately adopted by the Legislature on Wednesday. Some examples:
Four-year budgeting. Future budgets must match revenue to obligations over a four-year period. This is designed to end the accounting maneuvers that produce those morning-after-adjournment deficits. Along with adopting this reform, efforts to skip school and pension payments to balance the budget were defeated.
Initiative 728 repealed. Voters passed this well-meaning measure to limit class sizes when the economy was stronger, but the Legislature has had to suspend it for lack of funds so many times that it became a budgetary fiction.
Pension benefits curtailed. In 2007, the Legislature sweetened incentives for the early retirement of state workers. Under that change, workers retiring at age 55 could collect 80 percent of their pension. The state can’t afford this, and the early retirement penalty was increased for new hires. The estimated savings over 25 years is $1.3 billion.
School benefit packages addressed. School district employees derive benefits from one of a confusing array of packages controlled by the Washington Education Association. The bill introduces some transparency, so that taxpayers can see where their dollars are going.
This legislative session was notable for how those in the middle of the road steered the agenda. It was a refreshing change that yielded long-overdue changes.