A need for straight talk

There is an historical perk to serving as Washington’s governor — your own gilt-framed portrait that hangs in the executive reception room. Over time, the painting migrates down the hall into a column of mutton-chopped glowers. Elisha P. Ferry. Marion Hay. Everett’s Mon Wallgren (a national billiards champion, Wallgren is painted cigarette in hand.) Chances are the portrait of Dan Evans, Washington’s most accomplished governor, will stay put. That’s because the Evans legacy — from Washington’s community college system to environmental protection — has been meaningful and enduring.

Jay Inslee, the state’s next governor, will need to make legacy his touchstone and shape-shift into governing mode pronto. That means talking straight about the need for additional revenue. After the state Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, K-12 requires a ton more dough (read: at least $1 billion) and lean-management techniques alone are insufficient. Putting the kibosh on some ill-considered tax loopholes is one option, although the state’s supermajority requirement stands in the way. (It only takes a majority to create a loophole, but a two-thirds’ vote to unsnaggle it.)

During the campaign, both Inslee and Rob McKenna promised to change the culture of Olympia. That means tapping a fresh team that can look at challenges de novo, minus the institutional bias of managers who’ve been around a few decades too long. This shouldn’t preclude a few old salts who understand the culture and how to make government run more efficiently. But political hacks and payback patronage don’t help on the legacy front.

Washingtonians are still recovering from a hellish campaign season, and an ad blitz that made dozens of voters scribble “none-of-the-above” on their ballots. The antidote to political cynicism is non-jargon-ese (think New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s blunt post-superstorm talk.) It’s an invigorating MO, with the American people draining from the same old patter.

President Obama already threw down the gauntlet, insisting on Friday that any budget compromise must include a tax increase for those making over $250,000 a year. The next governor is at a disadvantage because both campaigns jettisoned the possibility of a revenue increase. Now ia a good time to come clean and mention that the next four years will be powered by more than program cuts to feed K-12 and higher ed.

Suzan DelBene, Washington’s next member of Congress, has a head start on tackling the fiscal cliff, getting sworn in this week to fill the remainder of Inslee’s term and then switching to a full term in the newly drawn first congressional district. We hope that DelBene sticks her neck out, capitalizing on a baptism-by-fire that will preview her leadership style and signal what kind of lawmaker she will be.

In the meantime, Jay Inslee has an opportunity to prove his mettle. Thinking long term and taking risks will keep his portrait in the reception room.