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Originally published Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 4:00 PM

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Editorial: Gregoire’s lame-duck budget hints at tough session ahead

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget proposal will have a short shelf life. That’s a good thing. A few of her ideas are commendable. Most are unrealistic.

Seattle Times Editorial

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Outgoing Gov. Chris Gregoire spoke forcefully last week in favor of a two-year budget that creates revenue, cuts spending and leaves some money in the piggy bank.

Her proposal even protects her Democratic successor’s campaign promise by suggesting no broad new taxes. (Gov.-elect Jay Inslee never said anything about existing taxes, Gregoire quipped.)

It was a good show, but everyone knows this is a lame-duck proposal.

The details in the governor’s plan don’t match up with the reality of the state’s bleak financial picture, which includes an estimated $900 million shortfall in the next biennium.

To make matters more challenging, the Washington Supreme Court has ordered the Legislature to better fund basic education. In a checkup ruling Thursday, the court said the state is not meeting the ambitious course demanded in last January’s McCleary v. State ruling. Justices have said their decision shouldn’t be interpreted as simply throwing money at a problem. Lawmakers should also search for sources of education funding through savings and reforms.

Gregoire proposed a $1 billion down payment on the McCleary ruling by suggesting two “temporary” taxes be extended and pupil transportation be moved into the overall transportation budget.

The latter is a clever trick that would allow the state to kill two birds with one stone: answer a key court direction that orders the state (not local districts) to transport kids to school — and free more general-fund money for education.

But to pay that $906 million biennial busing tab, Gregoire would impose a steady increase in wholesale fuel taxes on oil companies.

Such a cost would inevitably be passed down to drivers at the pump. The Department of Revenue estimates motorists would pay an additional 5 cents per gallon in July 2013, 8 cents in 2015, and 12 cents in 2017. A new tax package for maintenance, operations and preservation of the state’s transportation will be necessary. Her wholesale fuel tax will ripple to the gas pump, dampening the enthusiasm of voters to impose on themselves more of a gas tax.

Gregoire suggests saving $370 million in the 2013-15 budget by again suspending Initiative 732, a 2000 ballot measure that allowed automatic cost-of-living adjustments for school workers. Perennial deficits have prevented lawmakers from funding that mandate. They should just eliminate it.

Gregoire’s intention to set aside funds for state pay raises merit extra scrutiny, too.

Washington state government is not a large, high-tech employer like Boeing, Microsoft or Amazon. Too many other businesses can’t afford raises. Pensions have been eliminated, in many cases. Higher insurance co-pays and premiums are the new normal.

State workers are valuable, but they should not be shielded from the sacrifices those in the private sector are forced to make — especially when taxpayer money is scarce.

One promising aspect of Gregoire’s final proposal is her commitment to preserve and enhance K-12 funding, as well as invest more in early learning and higher education.

Washington currently spends about 54 percent of its general fund budget to educate children between the critical ages of 3 and 23. Lawmakers must hold that line.

In a final meeting with the governor, she lamented presiding over districts that too often operate in “silos” and “focus on the adults instead of the kids.”

At this point, Gregoire’s talk of a “seamless system” and “more accountability” is too little, too late.

It’s Inslee’s turn to lead.

As his predecessor showed us this week with the rollout of her final budget proposal — fixing money woes and keeping campaign promises will not be easy.

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