In Our View: Kick Less, Reform More

Postponing payments is no wayfor legislators to deal with budget woes

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House Democrats in Olympia on Tuesday attempted the legislative equivalent of a 70-yard field goal. But, instead of football, it’s a $450 million can that they tried to kick. The budget gimmick only postpones pain until the next biennium. (Hint: For many politicians, “the next biennium” is code for “after the next election.”)The budget proposed by the House Democrats would postpone $405 million of K-12 school payments until the following budget cycle. And procrastination is not their only gimmick. They also want to leave $96 million less in reserve than do House Republicans, and they want to cut public health programs by inviting county governments to take over that taxing responsibility.As we’ve editorialized repeatedly, the formula for sustainable budgets does not include gimmicks. Ignoring today’s obligations and expecting next year’s legislators to do your work for you is not the kind of public service that taxpayers and voters expect. And The Columbian is not alone in our thinking.

The Seattle Times editorialized: “These are irresponsible stopgap measures that ignore the urgent need for reform. None of these measures addresses the long-term problem of a government grown larger than the tax base that supports it. … Reform is the way out of the Legislature’s vicious cycle of quack budgeting.”The News Tribune of Tacoma editorialized: “House budget writers have been getting accolades from some interest groups who feared they’d fare far worse. Well, of course. When you pretend that $405 million of the problem doesn’t exist, it gets a lot easier to keep people happy. The hope is that, after more than four dismal years, good times are just around the corner. The reality is that we’ve had that same hope for those same four years, and the good times insist on hiding just over the horizon.”

A more detailed analysis is provided by Washington Policy Center, which makes this comparison (parentheses are the WPC’s): “Along with the utilization of the $405 million K-12 payment gimmick, the other major difference between the House Republican and Democrat budget proposals is the amount spent and ending fund balance. Republicans leave a reserve of $651 million with $30.542 billion spent (reserve is 2.1 percent of spending) while Democrats leave a $504 million reserve with $30.661 billion spent (reserve is 1.6 percent of spending). For budget stability, a reserve of at least 5 percent is recommended.”

What led House Democrats to even think about a 70-yard field goal? Overconfidence, perhaps. Recently, a slightly improved but fragile economic forecast showed an extra $97 million in projected revenue for the state. Also, caseload demands are down. Suddenly, a $1.5 billion projected deficit was cut almost by one-third. But kicking the problem to political successors is not the answer. The WPC now says a “potential shortfall of nearly $2 billion is already being projected for the next budget unless structural spending changes are made now.”

Not even the most optimistic football player believes a 70-yard field goal qualifies as structural change. Eli Manning must be laughing himself silly.