In Our View: Tug-of-war in Olympia

Budget-writing task is complicated, and time is running out

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Two different metaphors help explain the budget predicament facing Washington legislators, and both make pretty good sense in their own ways. Although the two perspectives come from vastly different political ideologies, neither is automatically more accurate than the other.The Republican metaphor was presented last week by state Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. He described a 16-year-old daughter who drives to school and gets $25 a week for gas. She asks for an increase to $100, but the allowance is bumped up to only $30. Hill picks up the story: "She goes back to high school and says, 'My dad cut my gas money by $70.' That is a cut in Olympia," by the current standards of many legislators.

The Democratic metaphor comes from state Rep. Ross Hunter, chair of the House Appropriations Committee. He described a person who receives a cost-of-living increase in salary, but sees a 10 percent increase in health insurance premiums. That same person also has a grandmother move in, and a baby arrives. Hunter's point, explained in a Seattle Times story, is that "more people move into the state, health care costs go up and there's inflation no matter what. In other words, simply maintaining the same level of state services costs more money."

Both analyses seem reasonably correct, but that only complicates the budget shortfall projected last week by the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council. The shortfall is growing. And, with the legislative session half over, lawmakers had better get crackin' if they're going to fix the problem.

The March economic projections, which are the most critical for state budget writers, show an increase to $1.2 billion in the revenue shortfall. Experts cite increased expenses (grandmothers moving in, babies arriving) as the main culprit.

But most Republicans say the gap can be made up without increasing revenues. They make a good point and, as the Washington Policy Center points out, budget writers will have $2 billion more in revenue for 2013-15 than is seen in the current 2011-13 budget.

Our long-standing stance has been that reform — most notably bringing state workers' compensation and benefits under control -- should precede revenue increases. And as Gov. Jay Inslee has said, revenue increases don't have to come from new or increased taxes.

Along about now, you're probably thinking the budget writers' dual challenge — overcoming partisan differences and confronting purely factual budget problems — is about as difficult as it can get. But the task gets even tougher. There's a court-mandated increase in state expenses to fully fund K-12 education. That cost could approach the $1.2 billion size of the revenue shortfall. In other words, doubling the dare.

Obviously, achieving a balanced budget as required by law won't be easy. If only the politicians were guided by one metaphor. Instead, they're torn between two painful and genuine realities.

More than one of the legislators must be thinking, "Boy, politics sure was a lot more fun back on election night."