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Originally published Thursday, March 11, 2010 at 4:10 PM

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Legislature shuns reform and leans on the taxpayer

Somebody, sometime, is going to make legislators reform state government. It will happen. But it didn't happen this year.

THE priority of the majority Democrats in Olympia has not been economic recovery. If it were, the Legislature would not be leaning on the taxpayer for nine-tenths of a billion dollars.

If the priority were economic recovery, Thursday's page-one headline in The Seattle Times would not have been, "Despite cuts, state spending actually on track to go up."

The priority of legislators has been protecting state employees. In the past two years, when private employment in Washington has plunged by 7.5 percent, the total of state workers outside of higher education has been shaved by 0.7 percent. The Legislature might have increased that rate in the coming year, but it didn't.

Many voices, including this page, told legislators to declare a fiscal emergency and reopen state employee contracts. Raising the employee share of health-care premiums from 12 percent to 20 percent — a share that is still below the average in the private sector — would have saved about $50 million in this biennium. The Legislature didn't do it.

There is also the matter of step increases — an automatic pay increase for an employee not at the top of the salary schedule. In the worst crisis in years, with taxes being slapped on all sorts of things and the unemployment rate close to 9 percent, the Legislature continued to fund step increases.

The state might simply stop doing some things. A bill was introduced to end the state's retail monopoly of liquor. The Legislature didn't pass it.

A year ago, when the economic omens were worse, the Legislature made it through without big tax increases. Back then, Initiative 960 required a two-thirds vote, and they didn't have that. This year, I-960 was amendable by a simple majority, and they quickly amended it. After that, the tax proposals scurried out like crabs from under a wet rock.

Senate Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, blamed her urban colleagues. "I think a majority of our caucus is from very safe districts." she said. "As a result, they just feel like we don't want to reform."

Somebody, sometime, is going to make them reform state government. It will happen. But it didn't happen this year.

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