In our view: Wild (Good) Ideas

When it comes to solving state budget crisis, creative thoughts always welcome

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Joe Zarelli is thinking outside the box again. And, although the state senator’s creative cogitation might leave a few of his colleagues in the Legislature a bit uneasy, Zarelli’s habit is healthy for taxpayers.

A couple of the Ridgefield Republican’s most recent proposals might not be adopted soon (or ever) but at worst, they fall into the nice-try file. And at best, they would qualify for the designation of hey-why-not-give-it-a-try?

Pressed for solutions to the state’s lingering budget crisis, Zarelli wants to increase the governor’s authority to make targeted budget cuts. He also proffers the idea that a bipartisan committee of legislators should explore innovative budget-cutting ideas. But unlike Congress’ deficit-reduction “supercommittee,” the Legislature’s eight-member group as Zarelli proposes would be formed by caucus leaders making appointments from both parties, their own and the opposition’s. And the commission’s chair would be a nonvoting, unelected budget guru from outside the Legislature.

Again, neither proposal might see the light of day this year — especially the bipartisan committee idea, now that Gov. Chris Gregoire has called a 30-day special session of the Legislature to start Nov. 28. In fact, Zarelli acknowledged as much after the special session was called: “My original intent was to have us prepared (going into the regular session on) Jan. 1,” he explained. “I realize that, regardless of any agreement, it will take time to get members coalesced around a certain decision.”

Still, it was a good try, especially with Zarelli’s suggestion that the committee be chaired by a nonlegislator. Such independent influence by unelected officials is working well with the Washington State Redistricting Commission. That group’s work might fall short of driven-snow purity immune to all political influences, but it’s still a lot more objective than the partisan redistricting warfare seen in many other states. There, disputes over redrawn congressional and legislative districts often wind up in the courts.

As for increasing the governor’s authority to make targeted budget cuts, a recent Columbian story notes that the conservative Washington Policy Center supports the idea. Current law allows the governor to make across-the-board cuts, but with the Legislature already trimming $5 billion to accommodate this year’s shortfall, the governor needs a stiletto, not the “meat ax,” as she recently labeled broad, systemic reductions. Jason Mercier of the WPC recently said the Legislature could set a percentage of an agency’s budget where Gregoire could enact discretionary reductions, leaving deeper cuts for approval by a standing legislative emergency budget committee.

Here’s an interesting new position for Republicans: Granting more power to the governor’s post currently held by a Democrat (albeit one who has announced her retirement) suddenly becomes more palatable because that new power pertains to that which the GOP holds sacred: spending cuts.

Zarelli is commended for tinkering with unconventional solutions. And Gregoire deserves praise for calling the special session, a decision that imposes numerous inconveniences on the legislators. Returning to Olympia for an unscheduled month of work is no fun. But their constituents would be quick and correct to add: That’s why you all were elected.

Furthermore, the disruption in personal schedules reminds us of three words that apply to the Legislature’s continuing, agonizing budget problem: Deal with it.