Washington: A Balanced Budget Is No Longer Enough

Updated Jan. 11, 2012

A Seattle Times headline is perplexing. True, the headline –“Lawmakers open session, try to close $1B gap” – is a fairly accurate assessment of Washington state’s budget. Not to be laboriously repetitive, but the headline is worrisome. Once again the Legislature faces a budget crisis.

“The economy is the focal point of this year’s legislature as state lawmakers attempt to close a $1.5 billion shortfall in a $34 billion budget at the state capitol in Olympia,” blogged Don Brunell, president of the Association of Washington Business (AWB).

Mr. Brunell is known for his pragmatic reasoning.

“As they deliberate, they must be mindful that Washington is in the midst of an anemic economic recovery which is very fragile,” the AWB president added. “New costs to employers, especially those along Main Street, have a dampening effect on our ability to increase consumer confidence and bring people back to work.”

That’s my sense, too. But the Legislature routinely fails to prioritize first things first. The short-term priority is to balance the 2011-2013 budget. But as a priority, it’s secondary to a bigger quandary – government and budgeting reform, which are needed immediately, as well.

Instead, all budget discussions are about the short-term and relatively insignificant issues grab a disproportionate amount of attention.

Gov. Gregoire wants to focus on a new $3.6 billion transportation package, gay marriage, shorten the school year, abolish social services, release some prisoners before the sentences expire, and increase the state’s sales tax. House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, also says same-sex marriage is a top priority.

A significant number of citizens wants to legalize marijuana. Some lawmakers want a statewide ban on plastic grocery bags.

Most of us in business agree education is a priority. But increasing taxes even for education isn’t productive as long as government/budgeting reform is ignored as a priority.

In addition to Mr. Brunell, another thoughtful pragmatist is Jason Mercier. Mr. Mercier is director of the Center for Government Reform of the Washington Policy Center.

Worth consideration is Mr. Mercier’s list of recommended reforms:

  • Enact a constitutional tax and spending limit (with two-thirds requirement to raise taxes) modeled after the original 1993 I-601 formula.
  • Remove as many of the restrictions on lawmakers’ ability to set spending priorities as possible (collective bargaining restrictions on compensation, federal mandates, assumption of auto-pilot budgeting on programs).
  • Reform competitive contracting. Allow agencies to make performance-based contracting more proactive (create a Competitive Contracting Council).
  • Provide the governor discretionary authority to cut spending.
  • Repeal unaffordable programs instead of suspending them.
  • Require at least a 5 percent reserve when adopting the next biennial budget.
  • Require updated four-year budget outlooks to be published after each state revenue forecast or budget adoption.
  • Require completed fiscal notes before bills can be acted on.
  • Phase in a defined-contribution retirement plan that gives state workers benefits that can never be taken away.

Amen. Yes, the Legislature should soberly balance the budget. However, unless the Legislature concomitantly reforms government and the budgeting process, uncertainty will never be alleviated for the state’s businesses and consumers.

From the Coach’s Corner, you might want to consider other public policy columns.

“There is an important sense in which government is distinctive from administration. One is perpetual, the other is temporary and changeable. A man may be loyal to his government and yet oppose the particular principles and methods of administration.”

-Abraham Lincoln

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Columnist Terry Corbell is also a business-performance consultant and profit professional. Click here to see his management services (many are available online). For a complimentary chat about your business situation or to schedule Terry Corbell as a speaker, why don’t you contact him today?

Seattle business consultant Terry Corbell provides high-performance management services and strategies.