In Our View: Legislators Finally Agree

Balanced budget is achieved, but it includes too few reforms

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While it didn’t carry the excitement of a three-point buzzer-beater before a capacity crowd in double overtime, Washington legislators did produce a balanced budget in the wee hours of Wednesday morning.Two factors support a positive review of their performance.

First, there were bipartisan approvals in both legislative bodies of bills that closed about a half-billion dollar shortfall for the biennium ending June 2013.

Second, Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate -- the most contentious chamber -- were pleased with the product. Republican Sen. Joe Zarelli of Ridgefield and Democratic Sen. Ed Murray of Seattle praised the measures that passed in the opening hours of a second special session.

Or was it a third special session? Actually, it was both, a second special session this year and the third time Gov. Chris Gregoire had summoned lawmakers to work overtime on this particular budget.

Special-interest groups for the most part seemed satisfied that the budget was balanced with no cuts in public education, no cuts in levy equalization funding for schools and less-than-feared reductions in the safety net areas of social services. One key advantage (worth $238 million) was gained with an acceptable accounting change -- not a gimmick -- pertaining to the timing of distributing state money to municipalities.

The budget is balanced, but not perfectly so. There remains justifiable concern about putting only $320 million in reserves. The Washington Policy Center reports that this is half of the 2 percent of spending that was called for in the governor’s original proposal, which in itself was below the 5 percent that many economists recommend for reserves. This was one reason Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, was one of 34 state representatives to oppose the House bill.

State Rep. Tim Probst, D-Vancouver and a workforce expert, is understandably excited that the Jobs Now bill will fund infrastructure projects that could produce 29,000 construction jobs.

Some meaningful reform measures -- not enough, in our view -- were adopted. The first steps toward a compromise on health insurance benefits for K-12 workers were taken, and lawmakers agreed on reducing early-retirement benefits for state workers. It’s good that pension benefits will be reduced for state workers who retire before age 62, although it’s frustrating that this will apply only to workers hired starting in May 2013. Still, the impact is significant: an estimated $1.3 billion over 25 years.

Another encouraging reform: The state’s two-year budgets will be required to conform with anticipated revenues over a four-year period, or 4.5 percent growth per year, whichever is greater.

Nevertheless, progress on reforms was relatively minor. Washingtonians should aspire to more reforms next year, ones that will make the spending of tax dollars more predictable and sustainable. This year’s accounting change, for example, was a one-time maneuver that cannot be repeated.

There’s still the sense that many legislators hope an economic recovery will bail them out in subsequent years. But any financial guru will insist that hope is no way to plan the spending of public money.