Force some budget discipline

Most state lawmakers, it appears, recognize that they have a problem saying no to new spending. So this fall, they’re asking voters to force some discipline.

Voters should oblige them by approving Senate Joint Resolution 8206, a constitutional amendment that would direct big, temporary spikes

in revenue into the state’s rainy day fund.

SJR 8206 was approved unanimously by the state Senate, and passed the House 76-10. That’s because it’s a prudent measure that would keep lawmakers from repeating the mistakes they made when an overheated housing market drove revenues up at an unsustainable pace a half-dozen years ago. Majorities responded to that windfall by spending much of it on new programs, which they’ve been painfully unwinding as the recession sent revenues through the floor.

Damage has been done to more than just new programs, of course. Inadequate reserves were burned through quickly, forcing drastic cuts to higher education, social services and corrections.

SJR 8206 would ease such blows in the future by requiring 75 percent of extraordinary revenue — defined as a third or more above the previous 10-year average — to be socked away. Had it been in place in 2005, according to the Washington Research Council, about $1.5 billion could have been deposited into the state’s Budget Stabilization Account, keeping spending at a more sustainable level.

The rainy day fund could only be tapped during a fiscal emergency, if state employment growth is forecast to be less than 1 percent, or with a 60 percent legislative vote.

Opponents of SJR 8206 argue that voters forced enough discipline in 2007 when they required that 1 percent of state revenues be set aside each year for hard times. They say putting more in the rainy day fund will just create a pot of taxpayer money that isn’t meeting taxpayer wants and needs.

That’s the kind of thinking that made the current state budget mess worse than it needed to be. An extraordinary surge in revenue was used to fund permanent programs. Such money can and should be used to cushion the impact of inevitable revenue slowdowns. Responsible families understand that. Lawmakers need such discipline forced on them.

SJR 8205

A second proposed constitutional amendment on the fall ballot is a simple housekeeping measure that voters should approve. It would align conflicting provisions in the state Constitution regarding voter eligibility, clarifying that U.S. citizens who have resided in the state for 30 days or more are eligible to vote in all elections. Outdated wording in the Constitution requires 60 days’ residency to vote in presidential elections.

In order to vote in any election, citizens would still have to meet all other eligibility requirements, and register to vote.

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