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Originally published January 5, 2010 at 3:51 PM | Page modified January 5, 2010 at 6:01 PM

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Guest columnist

Find budget solutions that protect Washington's values

Washington state's budget crisis is not the time to raise taxes on recession-bruised families, write four state Republican leaders. Better to reform government long-term by allowing private liquor sales and having state employees pay as much for health care as private citizens.

Special to The Times

THE stories are as common as they are devastating: A small-business owner forced to lay off her longtime friend and employee, or close up shop. The family next door who lost their home to foreclosure. The daughter forced to take on expensive student loans because her dad lost his job just when tuition skyrocketed. These are the stories on our minds as we hear new calls to raise taxes on recession-bruised families.

We applauded Gov. Chris Gregoire for her pledge to balance the last budget without raising taxes, even though many passionately disagreed with that approach. This year, though the state faces another deficit, we should make that commitment again.

Over the years, Republicans in Washington have persistently suggested ideas to make government less costly and more efficient. Democratic leaders have embraced some of our ideas, including creating a "rainy-day fund." Today we suggest a few more ideas that, if implemented, will help protect struggling Washingtonians from new taxes when they can least afford them.

These ideas won't solve the entire budget challenge, but provide a foundation for a balanced budget, much as the governor did in her recent budget proposal. The challenge before us is to work together to produce a budget that is consistent with our shared values.

We can save millions by eliminating our state's monopoly on liquor sales. According to Democratic State Auditor Brian Sonntag, Washington would generate up to $350 million over five years by transferring liquor sales to privately run businesses. Sonntag recently suggested at least $20 million in additional savings, along with millions in new revenue — all without raising taxes.

The state must also look at how its employees are compensated. As the Dec. 14 Seattle Times editorial "Gov. Gregoire's state budget has merit" noted, the state can no longer afford to allow its employees to pay only 12 percent of their health-care premiums while most private-sector workers pay more than 20 percent. Remedying this inequity saves more than $100 million this biennium.

Taxpayers should also be spared from funding $83 million in planned pay raises for 21,000 state workers. Most state employees would contribute more to their health insurance benefit or forgo raises if it meant a chance to save their jobs.

A major problem with Washington's budget process is that even in good times more is spent than is taken in. This structural flaw creates a house of cards, easily toppled by an economic storm. These unsustainable budgets cannot continue. That's why we agree with what the governor said in her "State of the State" address one year ago: "We can and must reform state government."

If our struggling economy is to rebound, we need to implement new reforms to spark job creation. Otherwise, we'll endure more job losses and missed opportunities, whether it's small businesses or Boeing.

For example, Washington's expensive, job-killing workers' compensation system may be improved by creating a "private option" along with the government-run system. Nearly every other state allows this type of choice and competition. Washington should, too.

Here are values we all should be able to agree on:

• Reforming government to protect our most vulnerable citizens and fostering job growth to get people back to work;

• Creating a sustainable budget that saves money in good times to prevent catastrophic shortfalls in tough times.

These are some of the ideas on which we look forward to working with the governor and Democratic Party leaders in the House and Senate. Let's promote these and other nonpartisan ideas to solve our budget crisis, grow our economy and return our state to fiscal health.

Rob McKenna is state attorney general. Sam Reed is secretary of state. Mike Hewitt is Senate Republican leader and Richard DeBolt is House Republican leader.

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