Lawmakers: Budget action can’t wait

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

The three Clark County legislators who serve on the state’s Economic and Revenue Forecast Council agreed Thursday that action on the ballooning state deficit can’t wait until the Legislature convenes in January for its 2011 session.

State economist Arun Raha predicted that the state will collect $1.2 billion less than expected through June 2013, widening the revenue gap both for the current fiscal year and for the next biennium.

Local lawmakers differed, however, on exactly what should be done, and when.

“I think we’re going to have to do a special session,” said state Rep. Ed Orcutt, R-Kalama. “I think it would be best done when the House convenes for assembly days on (December) 9th and 10th. The budget-writers need to be working on proposals between now and then.”

During a special session, lawmakers could make adjustments to the controversial 6.3 percent across-the-board cuts already ordered by Gov. Chris Gregoire, said Orcutt, the ranking Republican on the House Finance Committee.

“I would not call for a special session right now,” said state Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, a member of the budget-writing Senate Ways and Means Committee. “I would call all the budget-writers together in the House and Senate, all four caucuses and the governor’s office, and come up with a proposal that both parties can sign off on. As soon as we get agreement, we should call a special session.”

Pridemore predicted it would “be a circus” to call all legislators to Olympia without prior agreement by legislative leaders on a budget-cutting plan.

“This is a time for leadership in the state,” he said. “All the caucus members need to step up and show leadership. This is far more dramatic than anybody expected, and we need a bold reaction to it.”

As for Gregoire’s cuts, Pridemore said, “Across-the-board cuts never make sense. They were only a proposal because that’s all the governor has at her disposal. The Legislature has everything at its disposal.”

State Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, ranking Republican on Ways and Means, said the new numbers demand action.

“I tend to believe the state economy had already hit bottom; even so, this was a much larger drop than was expected, and a sign that the pace of our economic recovery will be slower than was hoped,” he said in a statement. “If it wasn’t clear before today that the Legislature needs to respond quickly, with a short special session to get going on spending reductions, it ought to be now. If anyone is still opposed to the idea of a special session, tell me: How much deeper does the budget hole have to get?”

Waiting will be worse

Zarelli noted that Gregoire has said she’s open to calling a special session if the legislative leadership comes to her with an agreement.

“But she has the authority to order the Legislature to meet, agreement or not,” he said. “We’re all going to be at the Capitol the week after next for pre-session committee meetings, and if the governor was to go ahead and call a special session for sometime that week, she will have done her part. It would then fall to the legislative leadership to make that time productive.”

Waiting until January would delay action for at least a month into 2011, Zarelli said, “and by then, there would be less than five months to implement hundreds of millions of dollars in reductions. The closer we get to the end of this biennium without taking action, the more painful the solutions will be.”

On a related development, Orcutt said he was “extremely pleased” that the governor has agreed to one of his budget-cutting proposals, a temporary moratorium on all nonessential rule-making by state agencies. He says such a moratorium will save the state millions of dollars, allow businesses some regulatory certainty, and send a message that the state’s leaders are genuinely concerned about their financial problems.

Gregoire announced Wednesday that she would sign an executive order eliminating all non-essential rule making by state agencies until the end of 2011.

“This is good for our state budget situation and good for our economy,” Orcutt said.

In his letter to Gregoire, Orcutt noted that the Department of Ecology alone has the equivalent of 43 full-time employees working on 26 separate state rules. He said he’s still working on getting numbers across all state agencies.

Orcutt said he believes every member of the Legislature could contribute ideas for cutting state spending in his or her area of expertise. In his field, natural resources, he said the state could realize significant savings by avoiding duplication of effort by natural resource agencies and he plans to reintroduce legislation to do so.

“You don’t need three people looking at a creek to determine if it’s two feet wide,” he said.

Kathie Durbin: 360-735-4523 or kathie.durbin@columbian.com.