Common sense a must in balancing dollars and cents

Here’s a teaching moment if ever there was one. I speak of our budget smash-ups and assorted state-capital smack-downs. These irksome ups and downs call to mind a principle that my lawmaking colleagues and other Olympia-watchers ought to buy in to.

To invoke a tried-and-true proverb, how fitting that we will observe the 60th anniversary later this year, on Sept. 26, of the passing of the great novelist and philosopher George Santayana. The eminent Spanish gentleman is perhaps best known for leaving us the pithy and truly spot-on observation that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

I’ve heard people ask why the Legislature even meets every year. One of my colleagues down in the capital, the good Sen. Jim Kastama from Pierce County, also believes we’d do well to fashion a four-year budget, instead of assembling the document, sooner or later, the two-year (biennial) way we do it now.

Frankly, I’m more baffled than bothered that some folks support a return to the holding of legislative sessions in alternate years. It’s advocated that we ply just such a course, notwithstanding disastrous winds awaiting the writing of budgets in those biennial seas.

The historic measure launching annual sessions was approved by the Legislature in the spring of 1979, and the constitutional amendment actually making it so was approved by the voters that autumn. Thus it came to be in 1980, a little more than three decades ago, that we commenced annual sessions. (I dare say, by the by, that armchair political scientists and learned historians alike will enjoy a great read in the History of the Washington Legislature. It’s a pearl of a chronicle if ever there were one.)

So anyway, there are two kinds of legislative sessions in Washington’s two-year legislative cycle: regular sessions and extraordinary, or special, sessions. As spelled out in the Washington State Constitution, regular sessions run 105 days in odd-numbered years and 60 days in even-numbered years. A special session, like the very one in which we find ourselves moored of late, are called by the governor and can extend no more than 30 days.

That we should endeavor to write a four-year state-budget in biennial sessions is a fool’s errand; it’s a fool’s errand to the nth degree, at that. It flies in the face of common sense. How could anyone create a four-year budget when we can’t seem with any degree of certainty even to see what kind of revenue we’ll have a mere nine months out?

Today even more than in times past, budget-writing is made difficult by our inability, not being clairvoyants or some batch of modern-times Nostradami and all, to see much into the future. We hold annual sessions because the goal of our budget-writing work is a moving, capricious target, for sure. It is nay on impossible to predict the revenues beyond three quarters, let alone more time than that. Yes, there are constants — and then there are “inconstants,” making it awfully difficult to look forward over that many tomorrows. Consider these ever-shifting factors:

1. Caseload demand and public-school enrollment.

2. Consumer confidence, which is particularly crucial in a system that relies so much on sales-tax revenue.

3. Energy prices, especially a barrel o’ crude on any given day.

4. Current- and retired-employee costs, specifically health care and pensions.

Now, sure, we can actually calculate No. 4 with a tolerable margin for error. But those other numbers bounce around every day, let alone every year. I remember the gas-rationing days not that many years ago when everyone thought the world was coming to an end because that barrel of oil set you back a whopping 25 coconuts! Further, you know what: If I could predict the other factors, why, ol’ Warren Buffett would be calling me for advice because I’d be genius enough to earn a fatter wallet than him.

The supplemental budget we passed out of the House of Representatives a couple of weeks ago is a credible proposal for these incredible times. Our Democratic design:

•Maintains a good chunk of the Basic Health program for working families.

•Preserves the Disability Lifeline for unemployed workers and people struggling with mental illnesses.

•Funds essential public-health programs and needed community services assisting developmentally disabled folks and other communities in need.

Washington state law demands that we adopt a balanced budget. At the same time, I’m committed to launching structural budget changes that endure over the long haul — while keeping sure that any short-term, inescapable cuts stay as consistent as possible with my values.

State Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, represents the 38th Legislative District, which includes Everett, Marysville and Tulalip.

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