In Our View: This Session Is Not So Special

Budget deadlock continues in Olympia; accounting change might be one answer

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When is a special session not so special? And when is a budget gimmick not so gimmicky? The answer to both questions is simple: 2012.This year marks the third special session in which the Legislature has wrestled with a deficit in the supplemental budget. Perhaps they should change the session’s description from “special” to “agonizingly familiar.”

This year also marks the appearance of a budget-writing technique that some might call a gimmick on first glance, but which one reputable source describes as acceptable. We’ll describe the maneuver, and then present its defense by the respected authority, the state treasurer.

A one-time permanent change in the state accounting process would allow state officials to hold local sales and use taxes in the state’s general fund for an extra month. The financial gurus say this would provide a $248 million boost to the state balance sheet. Of course, that would go a long way toward helping lawmakers resolve their budget-deficit dispute and end the ongoing special session.

The accounting change is nothing to fear, experts say. Counties and cities would still receive their money from the state as scheduled. Only a negligible bit of interest would be lost. Currently, daily deposits are made into the account for local jurisdictions, and up to two months of payments are accrued. Holding off on the deposit until the distributions are made to local governments at the end of the month would not require that customary cushion.

It’s important to realize that this change is a one-time adjustment and would not be repeated in future budgets. Legislators of both parties seem to accept it, and Scott Merriman, deputy director of the Washington State Association of Counties, said, “We’ve looked at it, and it works for us. We don’t have any problems with it.”

But the ultimate authority, in our opinion, is state Treasurer Jim McIntire, who has continually demonstrated both his financial acumen and his impartiality. McIntire said the accounting change “is yet another way for the state to modernize and improve the way we handle cash.”

Rest assured, McIntire knows a gimmick when he sees one. Earlier this year, he called a Democratic proposal to delay school payments by one day a “felony gimmick.” The tactic might have looked innocent, just one day’s delay, but as The News Tribune of Tacoma editorialized, it “amounts to a legal check-kiting scheme. Its only purpose is to let the Legislature evade its obligation to write a budget that balances revenues with expenditures within a given biennium.” More simply stated, it’s the ultimate kicking of the proverbial can down the budgetary road.

Unlike the school-funding gimmick, the accounting change is more acceptable. Still, we wonder why it took budget experts all these years to come up with the idea. The fact that McIntire supports it guides us beyond that concern.

Meanwhile, the agonizingly familiar session continues in Olympia. They’re more than half-way through this one. Most legislators aren’t even in Olympia. Party leaders and the governor are meeting in private, trying to reach an agreement. If they fail, Gregoire could call another special session or start making across-the-board cuts, the former more likely than the latter. State Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, says the big disagreements pertain to pension reform, the reserve fund and spending levels.

Washingtonians should look forward to the return of regular sessions of the Legislature, when lawmakers ply their trade more publicly.