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Editorial: Budget passed with an unconscionable secrecy, haste

Showdown over. Shutdown averted. Budget signed with hours to spare. What’s in it? That will take some time to sort through. In the meantime, enjoy the Fourth of July holiday. The political fireworks are still to come.

State leaders say the budget is historic, and it’s true. It’s the first time the Legislature has faced up to its constitutional duty to fully fund basic education. But as lawmakers pat themselves on the back, let’s remember that they had to be pushed into a corner – first by the state Supreme Court and then by their inability to forge a compromise.

Remember, the process for reaching this deal began at the end of last year’s failed session. So while the 2017 session ran 175 days – 70 days past its deadline – the failure to reach an agreement on education funding stretched to a year. And it’s been five years since the Supreme Court’s rendered its McCleary decision.

This obstinance-only legislating is a product of genuflecting to the base while refusing to give an inch. The result is showdowns and shutdowns with the public being shut out. The budget was made public only hours before it was voted upon.

Along with transformational education funding, the budget is crammed with details about a program for paid medical and sick leave, a new department of Children, Youth and Families, mental health funding, changes in business taxes, an internet sales tax, the end of some tax breaks and the extension of others.

Every item in the budget has a constituency that wasn’t able to weigh in before it was voted upon and signed by the governor. Complaints are already arising. Counties wanted relief from the 1 percent property tax cap; instead they say the state handed them even greater burdens. Mental health advocates are saying the budget is woefully inadequate. Valid complaints? Too late.

Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, had it right when he said Friday, “The implications for 7 million people are too serious and too profound to pretend that this is just the normal operation of government. It is not. This is outside the bounds of acceptability, and I think we owe the people of this state an apology.”

The current process invites cynicism and distrust. What is it that public servants are afraid the public will see? According to lawmakers who defend the secrecy, the answer is honesty. Can’t be frank if the public is watching. Implicit in this argument is that citizens cannot be trusted with the truth, so it’s better that they find out when it’s too late.

The Legislature could end showdown politics and curb the secrecy by adopting a baseline budget at the outset of the session. Bills that are adopted after that would add or subtract from current spending. This would ensure that a budget is in place when deadlines aren’t reached. It removes the threat of a shutdown and gives the state a budget in April, rather than June.

Utah has such a process. Other states have examples to follow, too. It doesn’t have to be this way. But if it continues, it’s because lawmakers have made a choice.

An apology won’t matter if the process remains the same.

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