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Legislature should act to prevent crisis
Lost in the deep concern about the state's $1.6 billion budget shortfall is this even sharper reality: There's a larger budget shortfall coming, unless we look hard at our economic and financial circumstances and do some serious reprogramming.
The latest fiscal projections indicate the 2003-05 operating budget would be short more than $3 billion. Selling off tobacco-settlement money at a steep discount to raise cash now, as proposed, will only make things significantly worse. With barely a week left in the 2002 regular session, Gov. Locke and the Legislature should be taking direct action to address the conditions that have put our state in such a hole.
A healthy, steady stream of revenue for the state budget depends on a robust state economy that provides a diversity of jobs and wages. We can't afford to lose another 65,000 jobs, as happened in 2001. The governor's Competitiveness Council, assembled following the Boeing headquarters exodus, has made viable suggestions for improving Washington's business climate. Unless some of them become law, the Legislature will prove council member Alan Mulally, chief of Boeing's commercial airplane division, was right to say legislators "don't get" that the state must be competitive when it comes to regulations, permitting and responsible budgeting.
Before considering tax increases, we must stop the flow of red ink. The 2001-03 operating budget - short $670 million when it was adopted - the $2 billion cash deficit flagged by the state treasurer, and the addition of 1,000 state employees as 2001 ended offer ample proof that Olympia's spending is out of hand.
What can be done before the session ends? Here are three specific recommendations:
Make state spending more accountable: Empower the state auditor to conduct performance audits to show the value received for the tax dollars spent. Convert today's budget-building process, which bases each new budget on the previous one, to "zero-based" budgeting. Require each agency to rejustify funding for programs under its jurisdiction every two years.
Force executive agencies to defend their rules: The tens of thousands of rules issued annually by unelected government appointees have the force of law, yet they rarely receive public review. Complying with these "soft laws" can be enormously expensive for the employers who keep our economy afloat. We should require hearings on proposed rules, require the governor to sign any new rules and require rules to automatically expire after five years.
Contract with private companies to supply services: In the private sector, competition helps keep costs down. Our state is going the other direction. The collective bargaining bill passed by the House would create a protected class of public employees, and leave them with little reason to work as efficiently as possible, at the expense of every other working family in Washington. The Senate should reject that bill and focus on repealing laws that prevent state agencies from contracting services out to the private sector.
I believe the oath of office I took makes me accountable for attempting to solve problems now - not leaving them for another year. These actions would be substantial steps toward dealing with the root causes of Washington's economic and financial instability. Selling off the tobacco settlement is a short-term response that only undermines any move toward a more stable health-care system.
"Business as usual" has failed before and is failing now. The financial fallout from this session will hang over Washington for the next decade. Pushing off the problem long enough to get through the election season just makes things worse.
Republican Glenn Anderson is the 5th District representative from Fall City. You can reach him at (360) 786-7876, or e-mail him at anderson_gl