In our view: More Foot-Dragging

State legislators are in no hurry, while meter runs at $41 million a day

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For an elected body that oversees the spending of $41 million a day, the Washington Legislature sure doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry to solve a fiscal crisis. It’s as if the legislators have forgotten the immense size of their purse, perhaps even the fact that they’re elected.

The current special session (called by the governor because of a financial emergency that was seen months in advance) began two Mondays ago. The lawmakers are trying to resolve a $1.4 billion revenue shortfall that is projected through June 30, 2013, the end of the current biennium. Gov. Chris Gregoire is asking for $2 billion in cuts under the justifiable assumption that the problem could get worse before it gets better. Sounds pretty urgent, right?

To the contrary, consider a Tuesday report by Jim Camden of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane. Camden wrote that neither the House nor the Senate appear to be driven by the need for expedience: “Although each chamber’s budget-writing Ways and Means committees have held hearings on the governor’s proposal — and have more scheduled this week — neither chamber has taken a floor vote on a substantive bill. Actual floor activity has been minimal, with the Senate holding ‘pro forma’ sessions from the middle of last week through (Monday) in which most members need not even show up on the floor.”

That’s a dereliction of duty, a neglect that’s in blatant defiance of the voters who send the legislators to Olympia to — more than any other duty — spend public money wisely.

Also, the Washington Policy Center (WPC) noted this week that “rumors of adjourning the special session as early as next week without balancing the budget are already making the rounds in the halls of the Capitol.”

The 49 state senators and 98 representatives must’ve missed the memo from Marty Brown. He’s the director of the Office of Financial Management, and rather than dealing with the partisan influences of legislative caucuses, Brown deals with facts, figures, and projections. In a recent email to legislators, Brown referred to the $41 million in daily expenditures: “Every day that goes by, we can’t get that money back. Your state agencies need time to put into effect the policy and budget changes that affect clients and providers all over the state. Faced with all this, I do want to say that time is of the essence.”

Even if the legislators suddenly woke up and sprang into action, there are other factors that slow the process, as Camden’s newspaper pointed out in an editorial: “Multiply (the spending of $41 million a day) by the hang time on a legislative punt, and that’s significant money that can’t be recouped. Furthermore, if a half-cent sales tax is to be part of the mix, then a referendum needs to be crafted and placed in front of the voters soon.” Well, “soon” is described in the governor’s proposal as March 13, for the special election.

It doesn’t have to be this way. A much better system would allow the governor to impose discretionary cuts in the budget. Currently, the governor is allowed only across-the-board budget cuts. The WPC correctly suggests that lawmakers amend the state budget and accounting act to allow the governor “to make discretionary reductions that don’t exceed a set percent … of an agency’s appropriations,” accompanied by certain reporting requirements. “This type of enhanced budget cutting authority for the governor should provide enough discretion while addressing any accountability or transparency concerns while providing budget reduction tools other than the current one-size-fits-all, across-the-board cuts option.”

That’s a great idea, and if the legislators don’t like it, well, they ought to starting doing their own work themselves, without delay.