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Thu., June 13, 2013

Editorial: Passing state budget should be top priority

After brief sightings late last week, Washington legislators have again disappeared behind closed doors to negotiate a state budget that should have been in-hand weeks ago.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee gathered his cabinet to identify what operations the state must maintain after July 1, the start of the next fiscal year, and those that will have to be curtailed for lack of legislative authorization. Republicans say Inslee is acting prematurely; lawmakers will reach a deal by the end of the month.

Maybe, but the drill may identify administrative or legislative updates needed to keep the state running at some minimal level. And whatever scenario emerges just might be gloomy enough to trigger conclusive discussions between House Democrats and the Republican-controlled Senate.

After the regular and first special session, the lawmakers are in second overtime.

The House has set aside about $800 million in beer and business and occupation tax increases, but has retained a $256 million package for K-12 education funding above the $700 million-plus addition already built into its budget. One-third that total would foolishly eliminate credits and deferrals for research and development. The rest is a grab-bag, two worth a total $90 million being acceptable: Applying the use tax to fuel consumed internally at the state’s five refineries (most other states impose the tax), and changing the procedure for nonresidents to claim the sales tax exemption.

The Senate has accepted the exemption change and a patch to the telecommunications tax also passed by the House.

The senators would set aside roughly $100 million more than representatives have for K-12, in large part by reducing services to many of Washington’s disabled and disadvantaged.

But the gulf between the two bodies really opens on three other measures the Senate insists on, and to which the House likely will not consent: referendums that would cap noneducation spending at inflation plus population growth; and another that would allow principals to reject transferred teachers.

The third measure would reform Washington’s state-monopoly workers compensation system, a proposal senators know voters will not endorse. But allowing workers as young as 40 to take state lump-sum buyouts in lieu of ongoing payments (the threshold now is 55 years old) is a good plan that provides more than adequate protections for workers. Buyouts do not affect health care.

Principals do deserve more control over teacher staffing. Capping spending, on the other hand, unwisely hamstrings future legislatures.

Other business also remains undone: a rewrite of driving under the influence laws and a capital budget for transportation.

But July 1 must not come without an operating budget. Too many employees and state clients will be hurt, as will the state’s valuable reputation for fiscal responsibility.

The House and Senate are perhaps $300 million apart on a $33.5 billion budget. There’s no excuse for paralysis.

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