Budgeting Tip: It's Not Raining

Legislators must resist the temptation to raid state emergency funds

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Don't let this week's weather fool you. Washington state is nowhere near a rainy day, at least not economically speaking. State Treasurer James McIntire made that stern pronouncement in an April 25 letter to legislators, warning them against tapping the state's "rainy day" fund to solve lingering budget problems.

McIntire, a former legislator and one of the leading economic experts in the state, is one whose advice should be heeded. And yet rumblings persist that some legislators, currently bogged down in a special session, have shifted their eyes covetously toward the state's $575 million rainy day fund that is designed for genuine financial emergencies.

When Washington voters amended the state constitution to create and later strengthen the state's rainy day fund, there might have been varying definitions of a rainy day. But, setting aside weather conditions, the Legislature's budget-balancing predicament certainly doesn't qualify as a rainy day. Early growth signs are detected in the national and state economic recovery, and as The Olympian newspaper pointed out recently, state revenue in the next few years "is projected to grow by more than 6 percent from the current two-year budget."

Fortunately, a supermajority vote among legislators is needed to raid the rainy day fund. But that ominous challenge didn't stop the Democrat-controlled state House from proposing a raid on the rainy day fund. The Spokesman-Review of Spokane reports that the House budget includes a virtual cleaning out of the fund, using more than $200 million and shifting the rest to where it would be easily accessed by the lawmakers. The Republican-controlled Senate will have no part in that, which is praiseworthy, but McIntire faults the Senate as well for projecting an ending balance in the biennium budget of $19 million. That might sound like a lot, but McIntire points out that it's "about a half a day's spending" for the state.

There are two more reasons for legislators to keep their hands off the rainy day fund. One proper use of the emergency money could be a sudden rash of forest fires. And, despite this week's weather, take note of House budget chairman Ross Hunter's quote in The Olympian story: "It's been one of the driest springs on record. You know what that means. It means a big fire season."

Second, according to McIntire's letter to legislators, dipping into the rainy day fund would be one of a few tactics "that may negatively affect our credit rating." The result of any such change would be higher interest rates and massive new costs for budget writers directly, and taxpayers indirectly.

Joseph Zarelli no doubt would second McIntire's motion if the Ridgefield Republican still served in the Legislature. Before Zarelli decided not to run for re-election, we dubbed him the "Beethoven of bean-counters," as he orchestrated many budget battles. Perhaps Zarelli's greatest contribution was teaching his colleagues a healthy respect for the rainy day fund. That respect must be preserved this year by lawmakers remembering the true definition of an economic rainy day. The year's state budget doesn't qualify.