Make progress on reforms

It appears that little disagreement remains among legislative negotiators about how to fill the current gap between state revenue and spending. Still at issue are reform proposals that a coalition of Republicans and some moderate Democrats in the Senate insist be part of a final deal that sends lawmakers home.

We believe there is room for a compromise that a majority should be able to live with, one that balances the current budget without further damage to education, and makes meaningful progress toward more sustainable budgeting.

At least two significant budget reforms should be included in a go-home agreement. One would scale back pension benefits for state workers who retire early, improving the long-term pension-funding picture. The other would require future budgets passed by the Legislature to balance over a four-year period.

We share the frustration expressed by supporters of such relatively modest, common-sense moves toward responsible budgeting.

“It just boggles my mind that we always go to this ‘Washington Lite’ model in trying to do the most minimal change possible,” Sen. Rodney Tom of Medina, one of three Senate Democrats who joined Republicans last month to form a centrist majority, complained during a press briefing Thursday.

He was responding to a proposal from House Democrats that “compromised” on the balanced-budget reform by requiring it for just two years, with a four-year outlook that could be left in the red. (Passing a balanced two-year budget, believe it or not, isn’t currently required of the Legislature.)

Tom also was objecting to the House majority watering down a reform that would keep state workers hired after July 1 of this year from retiring early with full or nearly full pension benefits — an unaffordable perk shared by few private-sector workers.

Indeed, such attempts to cling to the status quo, even in light of slow revenue growth that experts don’t believe will improve much in the near future, speak to a chronic stubbornness against making hard but necessary long-term choices.

More than surface-scratching is required. The Senate coalition, which has already given ground on its original reform proposals, should hold to its demand for at least some meaningful reform before a final budget vote. If that takes lawmakers into another special session, so be it.

Given the funding challenges lawmakers will face next year in education alone — the state Supreme Court’s recent decision requiring full funding for basic education among them — tougher choices are required now. “Washington Lite” won’t do.

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