Washington lawmakers must make budget reforms before they raise revenues
The Seattle Times editorial board urges legislators in Olympia to get moving on real reforms.
LEGISLATORS should remember why they were called to Olympia a month early. An emergency requires urgency. It requires working together. It requires movement.
This emergency did not pop out unexpectedly, like air from a punctured tire. It is the latest episode in a serial emergency in government finance during the past three years, and if nothing long-term is decided, will continue indefinitely. Legislators are not strangers to it.
The current shortfall, $2 billion, was known in September. This page urged Gov. Chris Gregoire then to convene the Legislature. She did not, partly because legislators said they were not ready. She gave them two months.
With all that time to clear their minds, legislators should have moved quickly. They have not. They have acted as if this were just another January, with time for all. Some lawmakers even have had a day off and others are reminding voters that nothing much ever gets done at Christmas.
Ordinary citizens of Washington, who have worked hard and fulfilled their duties during the year, will have earned a time to kick back and relax. Legislators have not. They have postponed hard decisions again and again. Now they have a $2 billion problem.
There is also a long-run problem. The slow economic recovery means a slow rise in state revenue. A tax increase would boost revenue, but it will not increase the rate that revenues grow. In this environment, a tax increase solves the government's problem for only one budget cycle. Without a reset of state government, legislators face the same tax-or-cut-programs crisis again and again.
The Republican caucus gets this, as does the "roadkill" faction of moderate Democrats. Their mantra is "reform before revenue" — and they are right. Do some reforms. Bend the cost curves down, then talk about revenue.
Yes, it will take some time. Reform is more complicated than simply raising the sales tax. But they need to get moving on it.