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Editorial: Compromise only wise solution to budget mess

State budget writers in Olympia will have a tough enough time closing a $900 million gap and scrambling for a down payment on the estimated $1 billion needed for basic education funding. But now they face the very real possibility of revenues declining because Congress and the president have been unable to reach a deal to head off automatic spending cuts.

If the 10-year, $1.2 trillion cuts from sequestration are allowed to kick in March 1, the state would lose more than 40,000 jobs and $3.4 billion from its economy, according to recent estimates. Federal spending has accounted for 20 percent to 25 percent of the state’s budget over the past decade. Half of the sequester will come from the Pentagon, and Washington state has a heavier than average military presence.

While the pay of military personnel is protected, the Department of Defense announced this week that civilian employees would be forced to take 22 unpaid furlough days this year. Fairchild Air Force Base employs about 1,100 civilians, while Joint Base Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, has about 10 times that number. The furloughs would translate to about $80 million to $100 million in civilian salary losses, according to the Olympia Report news service. Furthermore, the state would miss out on $480 million in local purchases.

At Fairchild, flights would be reduced and maintenance would come to a halt on aircraft not immediately needed for national defense.

The automatic 10 percent federal cuts would also impact city and county budgets in areas such as housing, block grants, law enforcement and public health. The federal energy assistance program that helps low-income people pay their heating bills would be cut more than $5 million in Spokane County.

What’s maddening about sequestration is that everyone agrees that it’s the dumbest way to cut a budget. The congressional leaders, including U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who dangled this meat ax in 2011 figured it was so frightening that Congress would surely avoid it. And yet, we’re one week away from the blade dropping.

Congress must cut spending in the long term, because the nation borrows 40 cents for every dollar it spends. That’s simply unsustainable, but there are smarter solutions than across-the-board cuts. For one thing, sequestration doesn’t touch Medicare, and there is no long-term deficit solution without reining in health care spending. Military spending also must be curtailed, but in a way that won’t harm readiness.

The nation needs a balanced approach that combines spending cuts and revenue increases, but Republicans and Democrats have been too blinded by the next election to see this.

“Compromise” may be a dirty word in Washington, D.C., but it’s the only hope to stop the cursing that will come from mindless budgeting.

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