Zarelli eyes proactive approach to budget woes

Bipartisan panel would seek ways to close projected $1.3B gap

By Kathie Durbin, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Lawmakers learned last week that the state of Washington is facing another budget crisis, and state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, thinks it’s worth borrowing an idea from that other Washington to help address it.

Actually, Zarelli said his proposal — that the Legislature convene a bipartisan group to get a jump on closing a projected $1.3 billion deficit — is not modeled on the new congressional supercommittee, which is charged with finding at least $1.2 trillion in federal spending cuts by Thanksgiving.

“I try to shy away from using terminology like ‘supercommittee,’” because it invites unrealistic expectations, he said. “My focus was more to get us thinking about how we prepare to be prepared.”

During the 2011 session, Zarelli, ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, worked across the aisle with Sen. Ed Murray, the Seattle Democrat who chairs the committee, to write a bipartisan budget. His commitment to the process won kudos from Gov. Chris Gregoire, Murray and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.

Last week’s quarterly revenue forecast predicted that a lagging economy will leave the state $1.3 billion in the red by July 2013. The news came less than four months after legislators scrambled to close a $5 billion budget shortfall during this year’s session.

In 2011, “we tried to figure out how we structurally solve the problem,” Zarelli said. Going forward, he said, “it’s going to be a little more difficult. “

Rather than call a special session of the Legislature to cut the budget, Zarelli proposes that legislative leaders assemble a nine-member bipartisan committee to closely examine the workings of state government and make detailed recommendations to the Legislature by Jan. 1.

He said his idea, laid out in a budget brief last week, is modeled on former Gov. Dan Evans’ “Blueprint for Progress” a half-century ago. The committee’s goal, he said, would be not only to help solve the immediate budget gap but to propose “forward-thinking recommendations that would bring long-lasting benefits to state government.”

Typically, House and Senate leaders nominate members of their own caucuses to serve on legislative committees. “But as we’ve seen in Washington, D.C., such an approach tends to result in the selection of members not focused on solutions but on posturing and rhetoric,” Zarelli said.

Instead, he’s proposing that caucus leaders appoint one member from their caucus and one member from across the aisle. That way, he said, they’ll likely choose a member of the other party whose viewpoints closely match their own.

The committee’s report and recommendations would have to win the support of at least six of the eight voting members. A ninth member, from outside the Legislature, would serve as a nonvoting chairman. “This person should be a prominent, respected statesperson capable of garnering respect from the Legislature and the public,” he said.

Zarelli said the makeup of the committee is modeled on Washington’s successful voter-approved state redistricting process. He said its composition would make it harder for the full Legislature to dismiss its recommendations.

“At the end of the year, there may be some things Democrats want to do on their own, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t focus on what we can do together,” he said.

Zarelli’s bipartisan committee idea has met with skepticism from other legislative budget writers. According to Brad Shannon, political writer for The Olympian, Rep. Ross Hunter, the Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said Zarelli’s approach “adds a crazy layer of process” and would make it harder to resolve the budget process.

Another proposal

But another of Zarelli’s proposals — giving the governor the authority to make targeted budget cuts on her own between now and January — has drawn interest, including from Gregoire herself.

Under current law, the governor is authorized to make only across-the-board cuts in state agency budgets. Zarelli proposes that lawmakers return to Olympia as early as next month in a short special session to pass legislation giving the governor new emergency budget-cutting powers.

“It would give her some limited authority to make some adjustment, instead of reducing everything in government equally,” Zarelli said.

Jason Mercier of the conservative Washington Policy Center endorses the idea. He said the Legislature could allow Gregoire to make discretionary cuts that don’t exceed a set percentage of an agency’s overall appropriations. Deeper cuts would require approval of a standing legislative emergency budget committee, with members from both parties and both chambers.

Zarelli declined to say what kinds of cuts ought to be on the table. “There were a lot of things we talked about in the 2011 session that we couldn’t agree to do,” he said. “ A lot of those programs, we should go back and visit. “

Other views

Asked whether new revenue should be in the mix, he said, ‘I’m sure there are some Democrats thinking about that, but it’s not on our collective plate right now.”

One of those Democrats is Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, who said in a statement last week that it’s time for lawmakers “to find the will to create new revenue.”

“It’s maddening that our economy isn’t steering a surer, quicker route toward recovery,” Moeller said. “Frankly, though, I’m against calling a special legislative session unless we reach agreement ahead of time” on a balanced approach. “I’m not interested in making any more cuts until we find the will to create new revenue. Three straight years of slashing essential funds for K-12 schools, higher education, nursing homes, public safety and other vital programs leaves us with precious few options.”

Gregoire, who last month asked agencies to prepare for additional state agency cuts of 5 and 10 percent in case of a dismal revenue forecast, said that with the Sept. 15 revenue forecast, “It is clear that this situation will require that we implement most of those reductions.”

The new cuts will impact education, compromise public safety and put the most vulnerable Washington residents at risk, she said. She called on Congress to take quick action to create jobs and deal with the nation’s economic crisis.

The Our Economic Future Coalition, representing more than 150 organizations, called on legislators to end “unfair tax breaks” and raise revenue. Campaign director Jim Dawson said more than $10 billion has been cut from education, health care and other public services since the recession began three years ago.

The Association of Washington Business issued a statement calling on lawmakers to approach the crisis “with a renewed commitment to bipartisanship and a laser-like focus on creating jobs.”