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Spin Control: Some modest proposals to boost the state budget

The Spokesman-Review’s Olympia-based reporter Jim Camden (Colin Mulvany)
The Spokesman-Review’s Olympia-based reporter Jim Camden (Colin Mulvany)

OLYMPIA – God willing and the creek don’t rise, the Legislature will finish by midnight Thursday, which, if accomplished, would be only the second on-time adjournment in the last six years.

The thing that could send the honorables into overtime is, as always, the state’s general operating budget, which they’ve spent nearly two months trying to update from last year’s marathon session. As usual, the amount of available revenue is outstripped by many good ideas to improve the state, and the two parties don’t agree on the best way to make the books balance.

Democrats often get the rap for not living within the state’s means, and this year didn’t disabuse many critics of that by trying to eliminate tax exemptions at which they’ve taken aim, and missed, for years. The yawns that accompanied the announcement of their tax package might’ve served as the soundtrack for a mattress store commercial.

While not advocating any tax increases, Republicans were not innocent of budget maneuvers that would add more black to the state’s books. Most controversial was a proposal to combine a pair of the state’s oldest pension systems, one which covers cops and firefighters, with another for school employees. Based on the reaction from grizzled veterans of various law enforcement agencies around the state, they might want to make sure all their tail lights are working and stay well below the speed limit for a while.

Since both positions have significant hurdles, Spin Control has some suggestions to boost state revenue that they could consider if budget negotiations break down. Remembering that taxes and fees aren’t just a method of making money, but of trying to encourage good behavior or discourage obnoxious activity, maybe lawmakers could consider these:

A 10 percent tax on the sale of any pharmaceutical product that has a mellifluous but absolutely nonsensical name. Doubled if that name includes an “X” or a “Z,” trebled if advertising includes an unpronounceable “real” chemical name for the drug. Money should be placed in an account to defray the rising cost of Medicaid prescriptions.

A fee for any commercial that turns a medical condition into an acronym or initialism. That would be increased tenfold if no one had ever heard of the condition before a drug was developed to treat it. The commercials on the nightly television news and Sunday talking-head shows, alone, could cover any shortfall in the health care budget.

An extra .420 sales tax on brand names for recreational marijuana derived from psychedelic rock songs of the ’60s, Cheech and Chong or Firesign Theater routines, “Dazed and Confused” or “Reefer Madness.” Bread could go in the general fund, dude.

Naming rights to state highways. On Friday, the Senate gave final approval to a resolution that renames State Highway 99 the William P. Stewart Highway. If you hadn’t heard of Stewart, he was an African-American who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, later settled in Snohomish County and is one of that area’s pioneers. In a way, it made up for a decision by the 1939 Legislature to name that the Jefferson Davis Highway, after the Confederate president who never actually set foot in Washington and was, after all, a slave-owning leader of a rebellion. That change seems fair, but the state has thousands of miles of highways that could be named for someone, for a price. Lawmakers could auction them off at so much per mile, and use the money to help cover the cost of the raise they say they want to give the state patrol.

Naming rights to legislation. Bills are sometimes “named” for people whose tragedy inspired a change in the law or a new program. But one could argue that over time the names tend to blend together and the circumstances get forgotten, so no one is sure if an Amber Alert is named for a little girl or the color on a warning chart. But the Legislature passes hundreds of bills each year, and it could sell the sponsorship rights on key legislation to interested parties. Microsoft might be willing to purchase rights to the budget or the charter school fix. Politicians could vie for the naming rights on a tax cut or a salary raise to state employees. Lawmakers could raise the price on particularly onerous but necessary legislation, allowing the purchaser to stick an opponent’s name on it. Money could be used to beef up the Public Disclosure Commission’s enforcement division.

Spin Control, a weekly column by Olympia reporter Jim Camden, also appears online with daily items and reader comments at blogs/spincontrol.

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