In Our View: Reform … Again

There are more than just two ways to overcome state’s looming revenue shortfall

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Washington’s Legislature meets annually for 105 days (in odd-numbered years) or 60 days (in even-numbered years). But lawmakers, in addition, on Monday convened their third 30-day special session in less than a year.

This part-time gig is really getting out of hand.

This special session was necessitated by a projected $2 billion revenue shortfall. Many lawmakers talk about dealing with this only by various combinations of spending cuts or revenue increases. Again, though, state Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield, the Republican leader on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, is advocating a third tactic that never seems to draw the attention it deserves: reform.

And Washingtonians have to wonder why reform never carries more clout in these agonizing budget discussions. After all, the concept of reform is largely (though far from totally) nonpartisan. Reform means simply changing the way government does its business, maximizing efficiencies. While conservatives advocate budget cuts and liberals insist on boosting revenue, both sides ought to agree that a bigger bang for the taxpayers’ buck would be a good thing.

Zarelli, admirably, keeps loading his sling shot for another bout with the Goliath that these 30-day special sessions always become. In a Nov. 13 op-ed for The Herald in Everett, Zarelli pointed out that a few examples of effective reform already have been established by innovative legislators from both parties: “I’d prefer to rebalance this budget using the same bipartisan approach that created it earlier this year — when, in stark contrast to the other ‘Washington,’ a philosophical majority emerged in Olympia to adopt a budget that allocated less than the amount of revenue anticipated at the time. That hadn’t happened in 14 years.”

Even with the limited attention given to reform, Zarelli points to steps already taken by legislators in that direction: “more choice for injured workers, a refocusing of the Basic Health Plan and disability lifeline, and clamping down on fraud and abuse involving food and cash assistance to low-income people,” all accomplished with bipartisan support.

Surely, that cannot be the end of what can be done. In his article for The Herald, Zarelli advocated focusing on “long-term obligations that are huge cost drivers, such as state-worker pensions, health-care services, paying off the state’s debt and efforts to bring our K-12 education system into compliance with court rulings” plus at least having discussions about “services for non-citizens, state liability, non-Indian gaming, state workplace efficiencies such as competitive contracting and defined-contribution pensions, and how the state subsidizes low-income child care.”

The reform menu keeps getting longer, doesn’t it? Why, then, are legislators so reluctant to place their orders?

Zarelli also addressed the menace of litigation: “Frankly, the threat of legal action also has become a threat to programs and services. We’ve seen a proliferation of lawsuits by those who are on the receiving end of spending reductions; unfortunately, if reducing a program’s funding means risking a lawsuit yet eliminating its funding means no risk of a lawsuit, the answer to that all-or-none decision is increasingly likely to be ‘none.’”

There’s a better way. Our popularly elected legislators are capable of more than just trying to balance the budget stool on the two legs of spending cuts and revenue increases.