It's a shame in some ways the Washington Legislature has just 105 days (okay, with a possible 30-day special as a trailer) to do its thing. There are some really basic questions this legislature could attack, and the structural situation is that it could if there's enough time.
Or, it could just run through the numbers, do the job of passing the budget and setting the revenue streams, and let it go at that. But there's potential here for more.
The key reason is that a triangular situation seems to be developing: Most of the legislative Democrats on one side, almost all of the Republicans on another, and Governor Chris Gregoire more or less in the middle.
This comes together simply because there's one big issue in this upcoming session (and much the same is true in Oregon and Idaho), that being spending. The state currently is on track for a $6 billion deficit, and steady as it goes won't work. Decisions will have to be made: Are cuts to be made? Are taxes to be increased? Will there be some measure of the two? Will some other partial options be found (and, while there are no fiscal wonder pills, there may be some additional options)?
Gregoire seems to have drawn a sand-line around some areas (education, debt service and some others) as no-cut territory, and is looking for major slices elsewhere. The Republicans, and probably some Democrats, would expand the cuttable territory, while most Democrats will probably want to expand the land of no-cuts. What we probably won't see, though, is a serious attempt to simply try to leave everything as it is; as Republican House Leader Richard DeBolt said, "we've never seen a deficit this large before." And he won't get argument on that.
Maybe because the number of Democrats in each chamber is so large, we're not hearing so much (yet at least) of simple anti-government rhetoric. That may be a sign that Republicans recognize they do have a slightly less ambitious but very real opportunity here. Senator Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, has been quoted as saying that spending increases in the last few years by Gregoire and the Democratic majority account for more of the deficit problem than the economic downturn does; and even if you quibble about the numbers, the budget runups in the last couple of biennial cycles certainly have inflated that projected deficit in a major way.
So the question some of the Republicans are getting at - is the state being too generous? - takes on some urgency and could move toward the center of the debate. Not a simplistic philosophical question, but a look at details and degrees. And that, actually, is the sort of thing a legislature should be looking at hardest.
That doesn't automatically translate to something specific. The Olympian has summarized, "Just consider what is on the chopping block: Pay increases for state workers and public school teachers, smaller classes in public schools, health-care coverage for children and low-income families, expansion of the higher education system, and the state human services safety net."
And Senator Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, for example, said all this raises the question of "what kind of state we want to live in, and whether we want to sacrifice some of our key services." But the issue may be joined, seriously. (more…)