Ending the state's budget nightmare

For the third biennium in a row, our state budget is in a hole.

It's raining, but our rainy-day fund has long ago run dry.

Current revenues aren't adequately funding services essential to the health and well-being of Washington citizens, such as our state's correctional facilities, health and critical mental health services and our public schools.

Although our state is moving forward, we're falling farther behind.

Sounds like a nightmare, but it's all too real.

How did we get here?

Unforeseen events have a lot to do with it, including the dot-com boom and bust, 9/11 and the Boeing layoffs.

The explosive growth in certain sectors does, too. In the state prison system, population has grown far in excess of the general population. In the healthcare industry, costs are increasing at a rate four to five times that of inflation.

A little-remembered initiative approved by voters in 1993 has also helped bring about our present budget woes. Initiative 601 had admirable intentions, to limit growth of state government while preserving adequate funding for essential public services. But 12 years later it has had a perverse effect on our state budget.

Instead of limiting growth while assuring adequate public services, I-601 has hamstrung the state's ability to respond to emergencies and changes in the economy and has created a built-in deficit that keeps services permanently underfunded.

We believe this has created an unsustainable problem. So we've sponsored - and the Senate recently passed - Senate Bill 6078 to fix it.

I-601 doesn't limit spending in a transparent way. The so-called "two-way street" provision - which allows transfers from other state funds to the General Fund in order to adjust allowable spending levels upward - has become a major superhighway. Elaborate transfers under both Republican and Democratic budget writers have made a mockery of spending restrictions, amended I-601's original purpose and drained our emergency reserve fund to nothing.

Making a "dead end" of I-601's two-way street provision is one reform our legislation offers. Our legislation reaffirms I-601's original purpose by applying the spending limit to five additional state funds not currently covered: the Health Services Account; Violence Reduction and Drug Enforcement Account; Public Safety & Education Account; Water Quality Account; and Student Achievement Fund.

I-601 bases annual economic growth on changes in state population plus inflation. But - as the criminal justice and healthcare sectors demonstrate - these two rates of growth just can't keep pace with actual costs.

Our legislation reforms I-601's growth factor to track with the actual cost of necessary services. Basing growth on 90 percent of personal income growth will enable the state to pay for its public needs while ensuring that government never grows beyond what taxpayers can afford. This means that if our economy recedes again, the spending limit would be lowered.

I-601 requires a two-thirds vote for the Legislature to increase taxes. Perhaps most controversially, our legislation reforms the threshold for raising revenue, changing the requirement to a simple majority vote.

We believe the vitality of our public safety, healthcare and education systems is on the line, and bold decisions must be made. Yet I-601's two-thirds vote requirement provides lawmakers plenty of political cover for not stepping up to the challenge. In effect, it makes it easier for lawmakers to look the other way.

Critics say our legislation is just about making it easier to raise taxes. They see a spending problem, not a revenue problem. According to them, we simply need to cut programs and services to address our structural deficit.

But lawmakers cut services the previous two biennia without generating any new revenue. We still have a deficit. Additional cuts don't address the dramatically growing costs in healthcare, public safety, education and higher education.

It gets more expensive each day just to stand still. This - not wanton spending - is the state's real challenge.

As far as increased taxes are concerned, we are well aware that this is probably the most unpopular vote we can make as legislators. We are also well aware that elected officials are often perceived as being more concerned with their own reelection than with the needs of the citizens.

While drafting our legislation, we were under no illusion that it would be greeted with popular acclaim. But we kept coming back to a single question: How is it responsible to seek more cuts if we know that doing so will jeopardize our public safety and criminal justice systems, force more people with mental illnesses out into the streets, and make our public school classrooms more crowded than they already are?

We see a real possibility for the health and well-being of our citizens to be truly harmed, and we aren't content to look the other way.

Our job is to address the needs of the citizens. Sometimes that requires us to make unpopular choices.

Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma, has represented the 27th District in the Legislature since 1994. Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Queen Anne, has represented the 36th District in the Legislature since 1992. Both serve on the budget-writing Ways & Means Committee.

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