In Our View: 60-Day Challenge

Legislators have a tough assignment,and they’re not good at hurrying

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When Washington’s legislators returned to work on Monday, they faced a heavy schedule of fiscal and social issues. We wish them well, because as Gov. Chris Gregoire said in Tuesday’s State of the State address, “I ask you to finish quickly because every day the problem gets bigger and the choices harder.” And as state Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, boasted in the Republicans’ reply, “fortunately, our Legislature is not like Congress. We are all Washingtonians.”

Our wish, though, is soured by skepticism. Recent history indicates that — although Zarelli and others claim both sides of the aisle have worked harmoniously recently — they’ve shown no meaningful progress toward a sustainable budget policy. The deficit is projected at $1 billion.

Also, we’re skeptical because legislators have not responded well to deadlines. In last year’s 30-day special session, they solved less than half of the budget problem. And this year, unlike the 105-day sessions of even-numbered years, the session will last only 60 days. Yet there’s a long list of crucial decisions — about both financial and social issues — that need to be made. On the fiscal side, the biggest battle likely will be over the proposed sales-tax increase, which The Columbian editorially opposed on Nov. 23. Regarding social issues, the top headliner will be gay marriage, which The Columbian first supported eight years ago.

Of the 1,838 words in Zarelli’s speech on Tuesday, the most important were these: “the Legislature has barely scratched the surface when it comes to reform.” Only when more progress is made “re-prioritizing” state spending (Zarelli correctly defines the top three priorities as education, public safety and services for the most vulnerable) and only when long-overdue reforms are enacted, should lawmakers even consider increasing revenue.

The Ridgefield Republican proposed several reforms. Our favorite was down a few notches on his list, but could yield huge savings. It concerns pay and benefits for state workers. Zarelli believes “new public employees should be enrolled in a pension system more like that which we see in the private sector.” Our preference is to bring current state workers more in line with the private sector, but at least changing the pension plan for new employees would be a good start. And the best choice for that change would be a defined-contributions plan — similar to a 401(k) — rather than the current, unsustainable defined-benefits plan. As Zarelli notes, this would give employees more portability and control, and it would give taxpayers more certainty and predictability.

The first reform Zarelli mentioned was to “amend the (state) constitution and lower the permissible level of debt. Over time, that would free up hundreds of millions of dollars for other priorities.” He also wants the state to adjust co-pays, premiums and eligibility for public-subsidy recipients, certainly to “consider that before anyone suggests cutting services to developmentally disabled people.”

Among his other proposals: Allow teachers to purchase health-care benefits at a statewide level, as state workers already can. And increase privatizing of government projects.

Gregoire warned that “we are about to shred very core services,” but Zarelli said “do not be misled by claims that government has ‘cut to the bone.’” There’s an enormous gap between those two comments. Bridging that gap in 60 days won’t be easy.