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Published: Wednesday, January 9, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

How Inslee can meet modest hopes

There turned out to be no New Year's resolution to the fiscal cliff negotiations. Tumbling over the cliff feels more like getting kicked down the stairs a floor at a time. Each landing offers an opportunity to catch your breath, assess your bruises, and wonder if there isn't a better way to manage the descent. Then they kick you again. Entitlement reforms. Spending cuts. Debt ceiling debacle. Repeat. It's a long way down.
Welcome to the D.C. reality show, showdown and standoff.
Congress and the president avoided big decisions as they stutter-stepped into 2013. They can't even manage the crises they manufacture. Their indecisiveness has consequences, including for state officials who now wonder how budgets will be affected when Congress turns to spending in March.
"They left uncertainty on the table," says Michael Bird of the National Conference of State Legislatures, reports Stateline news service. Federal funding amounts to nearly a third of state budgets nationally -- we're in the ballpark -- so not having the figures nailed down until March poses obvious problems.
It's safe to assume we'll see no bold strokes, no enduring solutions. The political dynamic militates against anything beyond cosmetic and incremental tweaks to an unsustainable status quo.
Most polls show consumer confidence fell in December. Voters' views of the economic outlook for 2013 remain bleak. This will change. With rampant uncertainty, any bit of solid news triggers mood swings. But the trajectory seems fixed.
Stuart Elway has long tracked public opinion in our state. Last week's Elway Poll found that near-term voter optimism plummeted between September and December, the sharpest decline since 1993. His quarterly Voter Outlook Index examines voters' expectations for the country, the state, their community and their household.
On all measures, optimism fell sharply. People tend to feel better about the things closest to them. Asked if things will get better or worse in the next year, 60 percent said they'd be better for our households, 55 percent said better for our communities, 50 percent better for the state and 47 percent better for the nation.
Democrats are more optimistic than Republicans, although both groups are less hopeful now than they were in September. Maybe that bipartisan coalition planning to run the state Senate has soured Democrats' electoral win.
Low expectations extend to the new governor. Jay Inslee will take office with just 36 percent of the state's voters thinking he'll be an "excellent" or "good" governor. Another quarter told Elway they hoped he'd be good, but didn't expect it. Unsurprisingly, a majority of Democrats think he'll do a fine job. Republicans disagree.
Expectations for Inslee are better than they were for Chris Gregoire and Mike Lowry in their first terms. Only he and Gary Locke come in with more people thinking they'll do a good job than a bad one. And, Elway notes, all left office with more negative reviews than positive.
Inslee can finish stronger than he begins. He, like each of the three predecessors, faces economic challenges. He can learn from them.
Shortly after he took office, Lowry embraced tax increases and expanded government with a massive health care reform. Voters rejected his approach, adopting tax limiting Initiative 601 the following November. A realist, Lowry also supported constructive manufacturing tax incentives.
Locke, facing a recession and budget deficits, introduced a disciplined "priorities of government" budget regimen to balance the budget without new taxes. He also appointed a competitiveness council that proposed necessary regulatory and fiscal reforms.
And after boosting spending in her first term, Gregoire spent her second term as a reluctant budget hawk. She made significant improvements in government accountability and transparency and proposed executive branch reorganization.
A lot of factors influence a governor's record. Even good decisions can be unpopular. But Inslee can benefit from his predecessors' experiences. He should try to build a budget without tax increases. A reinvigoration of Locke's priority-based budgeting could help in that effort. Another high-profile competitiveness council could build support for growth-nurturing regulatory and fiscal reform. And, he should continue Gregoire's transparent accountability reforms.
Promote growth, maintain a sustainable budget, and improve government performance. If he does these things, Inslee will exceed voters' modest expectations. It's the right agenda for the time.

Richard S. Davis is president of the Washington Research Council. His email address is rsdavis@simeonpartners.com

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