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Originally published October 27, 2009 at 3:35 PM | Page modified October 27, 2009 at 5:46 PM

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Guest columnist

Washington lawmakers should meet soon to deal with state budget imbalance

Washington state Sen. Joseph Zarelli, who has called for the Legislature to convene a special session to deal with budget issues, says the sooner the better. With the budget already $1.2 billion out of balance, the longer state lawmakers wait, the deeper will the cuts eventually have to go.

Special to The Times

AS a monumental state budget deficit loomed late last year, the Senate Republican leader and I reached out to the Legislature's top two Democratic leaders. We offered to meet and identify cost-saving policy changes for quick adoption when the 2009 session convened a few weeks later.

No pre-session meeting took place, unfortunately, and the fiscal foot-dragging that followed is part of why the new state budget is already $1.2 billion out of balance. Consequently, we need to reduce government spending in ways that will last, and the sooner the better.

The math is straightforward: Each dollar saved in January is equivalent to a cut of $1.50 in July. Put another way, $67 million in reductions effective in January will erase a $1.2 billion gap in 18 months, when the 2009-11 biennium ends; if lawmakers wait until July, the cuts must be 50 percent deeper, or $100 million per month.

If serving our most vulnerable citizens is truly important, acting early — preserving $33 million worth of services every single month — makes sense.

There's time for legislative leaders and budget writers to prepare a spending-reduction package to take effect Jan. 1. New state caseload and revenue forecasts are due Nov. 13 and 19, respectively, and assuming they don't significantly shrink the budget gap, Gov. Chris Gregoire or the Legislature itself can call a special session for early December. Legislators will be in Olympia already for committee meetings. It would cost no more to convene quickly, bring the cost-saving package forward and adopt it.

Such action might not be necessary had lawmakers passed a sustainable budget during the 2009 regular session.

After sidelining their dozen-plus tax proposals, which under Initiative 960 would have required a public vote or two-thirds legislative vote, Democrats punted. Rather than pursue reforms I and others proposed to refocus state resources on core services, they adopted a budget reliant on more than $4 billion in one-time money.

With no second federal bailout on the horizon, legislators now should follow the steps taken in 2003, when Senate Republicans and Gregoire's predecessor debuted the "priorities of government" to erase a then-record deficit without general tax increases.

Trouble is, soon there will be nothing to force lawmakers to reduce spending, because this year's budget punt ran enough time off the clock to send I-960 off the field.

Under our constitution, it takes a two-thirds legislative vote to amend initiative-based laws enacted less than two years earlier. Initiative 960 took effect in December 2007, so when the Legislature convenes Jan. 11, the majority party can do what it could not in 2008 or 2009: toss I-960 and raise taxes all on its own. No vote by the people, no bipartisan support or "public conversation" required, just one late-night legislative roll call and those tax-hike protections vanish.

History says bet on it. In 2002 and 2005, the majority suspended limits on government taxation and spending created by the people, most recently to allow $500 million in tax increases.

This economic downturn is forcing Washington families and employers to go through the challenging — but typically worthwhile — exercise of reviewing priorities and finding ways to stretch dollars. A special session will allow legislators to make changes that help chart the right course and keep Washington from following California into financial chaos.

"We need to reform," the governor told the people this past January, "and we will."

She was right about the need, but her promise has yet to be kept. Lawmakers can begin turning that around by acting early to make government leaner and resisting the temptation to raise taxes.

Sen. Joseph Zarelli of Ridgefield is Republican leader on the Senate Ways and Means Committee and a member of the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council.

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