Camden: State’s assignment: Pay for programs

By Jim Camden, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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photoJim Camden

In trying to come up with a pithy description for the Legislature’s recent special session, I couldn’t shake the memory of a particularly annoying greeting adults seemed to enjoy during my teenage years: Working hard, or hardly working? Ask the handful of legislators involved in budget negotiations, they’d say the former. Ask many others in or around the Capitol, the judgment would likely be the latter. By outward appearances, the workload for this emergency session was disappointingly light. Even protesters from Occupy Olympia, who had to be escorted out of budget hearings and forcibly removed from the Capitol rotunda at the start of the first week, gave up any pretense of interest by the second.

It’s not as if most people watching the session regard $480 million as chicken scratch. That’s the amount the Legislature managed to find to start filling the yawning gap in the General Fund budget. But when facing a gap of at least $1.4 billion — or $2 billion if the state wants to avoid blowing through its emergency and rainy day funds and checking under the office cushions for change that might have rolled out of lobbyists’ pockets — that’s just somewhere between a third and a fourth of the hole filled.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, noted that the first $480 million was difficult. The panel held hearings on the governor’s proposed cuts, which would fill the entire gap by bulldozing complete programs over the edge, and it was responsible not to make those cuts hastily, he said. “We allowed the public, night after night after night, to testify about the impacts of what we were about to do, the impacts on their lives,” Murray said.

Some legislators will spend part of the next two weeks looking for other solutions. But whatever they propose will generate another parade of witnesses with heartfelt stories of how a state program helped them, their children, their elderly parents, their neighbor, their co-worker or their employer. It gets harder, not easier.

Making up an Incomplete

Republicans are sure to come back on Jan. 9 with calls for government reform, although in proposing reforms of her own, Gregoire essentially dared them to come up with proposals that pencil out to anywhere near the remaining $1 billion to $1.5 billion needed.

Some Democrats will come back with plans for new taxes, although the larger the number of tax plans presented, the less likely any will pass.

The last day of the session was not so much of an end as a winter break. A new semester starts soon; the Legislature took an Incomplete this term and now must earn the equivalent of a doctorate in recession budgeting.

During the special session, both chambers approved a joint resolution asking Congress to pass the Main Street Fairness Act, which would require Internet retailers to collect sales tax from their customers, just like brick-and-mortar stores do, and remit those taxes to the appropriate states. That could be worth hundreds of millions a year for Washington, so it’s nothing to scoff at. But isn’t there something bizarre about a Legislature, itself divided on taxes, asking a paralyzed Congress to do something about them?

Although the Legislature is on break, new legislation continues to pop up. Among ideas is a proposed constitutional amendment from Sen. Dan Swecker, of Rochester, and other Republicans like Mark Schoesler, of Ritzville, and Mike Hewitt, of Walla Walla. It requires any initiative that starts a new program or expands an existing one to identify a way to pay for it. In the past, voters have approved initiatives to give public school teachers regular raises or shrink classroom sizes or, just last month, require more training for home care providers. But the initiatives didn’t come up with new sources of money to cover those changes. Legislators often suspend those directives in tough budget times. Gregoire said she hadn’t read the proposal, but might support it. The Legislature has to identify a money source when it comes up with a new program, she said. When voters pass legislation at the ballot box, maybe they should, too.