OLYMPIA – For the next three weeks, at a minimum, legislators will be throwing around the word “sustainable” more than a bunch of organic farmers hectoring an executive from Archer Daniels Midland.
It is the go-to cudgel for anyone who doesn’t like a budget proposal, and as Friday’s budget debate in the Senate showed, even when people help write a budget, they admit there’s plenty in it they don’t like.
After about four hours of debate, the Senate sent a $32.5 billion operating budget to the House of Representatives, which is likely to treat those 400-plus pages of spending directives like a Samurai warrior skit from an early Saturday Night Live episode, slicing it apart and producing a barely recognizable new version. Many senators who voted for the budget Friday will say that new budget is not sustainable. This will continue until the session ends around April 28, or to some later point if they require a special session.
What sustainable means may be as dependent on the person speaking as that other common budget adjective, “bipartisan,” which is used by some to describe anything that has nearly all of my party and one of yours, but others insist may be used only to describe something with roughly equal support from both sides.
In its purest budget sense, sustainable means we can keep doing this same thing for years to come, and the state will have the money to do it. Because the Legislature must draw up a spending plan that balances over four years, even if it’s only authorizing spending for the next two, having a spending plan that keeps doing what one says is kind of an important thing.
Thus, if a budget proposal wants to reach into one of the state’s many smaller pots of cash that are fed by a certain stream of money for a specific purpose, and use that money for a different purpose, someone might have the bad manners but good sense to haul the state’s butt into court and have a judge put a stop to it. Judges ordering the state not to spend money for certain things, or spend more money for other things, are such common occurrences that the cases are simply known by the name of the first plaintiff who did the butt hauling. A critic predicting such action would say the budget is not sustainable.
If the state were to place a tax on a product, and estimate a certain return from robust sales, then plan to spend that money without taking into account the fact that raising the price is likely to depress sales and tax revenue, a critic would say that’s not sustainable.
Because budget writing is a blending of crystal-ball gazing, values judging and checkbook balancing, the state sometimes only knows if something is sustainable after it happens. Or doesn’t happen. The minority party usually says the majority party’s budget is not sustainable.
One thing is clear. For the next three weeks, and probably longer, what sustainable means is “I like my budget, yours stinks.”
Budget debate detours
Friday’s four-hour budget debate in the Senate was mostly about programs that get cut or taxes that don’t get raised. But there were brief detours into other topics, including cigar lounges and Spokane Indians baseball.
An amendment to the budget tried to set up an appropriation of an extra $3.7 million for tobacco prevention programs, contingent on other legislation passing that allows for the establishment of cigar lounges, which would pay special taxes and fees. If the lounge legislation didn’t pass, the money wouldn’t be generated or spent.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, likened the ban on adults smoking cigars in special facilities to Prohibition. “This is still America, not a nanny state,” said Sen. Mike Baumgartner, R-Spokane.
Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, said the comparison between alcohol and tobacco doesn’t really work because the concern is for people who would work in the smoke-filled lounges. Serving alcohol won’t kill the person handing out the drink, he said, “otherwise this body would be pretty empty tonight.”
Opponents of smoking, of which there are many in the Legislature, dispatched the idea on a voice vote.
Sen. Andy Billig, D-Spokane, managed to get in a plug for city’s single-A team, of which he is part owner, in support of more money for teacher and principal evaluations. Coaches for the Indians do that in practice and games, and that’s how players get better and maybe wind up in the major leagues, he said.
The amendment to add the money failed 25-23. One can only hope the Indians fare better this summer.