In our view: December Dawdling

Legislators likely to fail in the goalof balancing the budget by Christmas

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Much to the consternation of voters in Washington state, our legislators’ special session has become more mundane than special. Gov. Chris Gregoire called them back to work on Nov. 28, but the lawmakers have virtually nothing to show for their two weeks of haggling. They’re trying — in vain, so far — to erase a $2 billion shortfall in projected revenue. One report Friday was that the legislators would present some kind of partial budget agreement on Monday, perhaps some spending cuts in the range of $300 million to $500 million. But they’re not expected to meet the governor’s request.

As if to hoist some kind of tarnished consolation trophy, some legislators are claiming the wasted two weeks qualify as some form of a head start on the regular session that begins next month. That’s like coal in Gregoire’s stocking. Or, to present another metaphor, she said the Legislature has gotten “wrapped around the axle,” according to The Seattle Times. She added: “Would I like to see a budget on my desk by the end of December? Absolutely. Am I going to get my wish for Christmas? No, I’m not.”

At least three partisan garments are wrapped around the figurative axle. Many Republicans advocate budget cuts without new revenue. Many Democrats insist they’ve cut to the bone, and no more cuts will occur without new revenue. A third group, mostly Republicans and a few moderate “Roadkill Democrats,” want reforms before cuts or new revenue.

Included in that third group is state Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, lead Republican budget writer. In a Thursday interview with The Columbian, Zarelli described the difference between this laborious legislative grind and what is seen in the private sector: “An executive needs only to look in the mirror, but when you’ve got 147 legislators in two chambers trying to balance a budget, and different factions wanting different things done, it’s not a simple process.”

We’d like to see more legislators stop tying to claim political scalps, abandon the partisan bickering and settle into the serious, almost academic demeanor that Zarelli seems to reflect even during these most contentious times. For example, why not focus on the “natural growth” of revenue? Theoretically, that could be accomplished solely through an economic recovery, tweaking the relationship between state government and the business world. The more quickly our state crawls out of the recession, the more quickly sales tax revenues will increase. That doctrine is exclusive to neither liberals or conservatives.

Zarelli continues to mention reforms still available. For example, “debt-service reform,” plus, “We are one of the few states that still pay 100 percent of a bill in insurance cases that are lost,” Zarelli noted. Then there’s the idea of cost sharing in health care reform. No one really believes low-income people should be forced to pay high premiums, but how about a tiny co-pay? How might that help solve the budget problem? Also, can the state achieve more savings through competitive contracting? Probably. And what about a defined-contribution pension, not necessarily for current employees but just for new ones? In addition to possible savings, that would add stability to long-term budgeting. Zarelli wants to “migrate from paying teachers based on graduate credits to paying based on competency.” Even before assessing the potential savings in that notion, it would be a great way to boost the quality of K-12 education.

When The Times asked House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis to grade the special session, he replied, “I would give it an ‘F’ … the closest we’ve come to solving the problem is the possibility of a partial solution.”

Looks like lawmakers will be home in time for the ho-ho-ho of the holidays, but it’ll be a Blue Christmas for the budget.