State needs robust budget debate this fall

By Richard S. Davis

Reports suggest a budget compromise in Olympia may be within reach. If true, the spirit of unity will last perhaps until the governor signs the bill. After that, everyone can resume arguing about how unsatisfactory the deal is and what should have been done differently. Because the budget won’t include significant new revenue (aside from some one-time cash infusions) we can also expect the routine complaint that recession-induced austerity has left the state with an “immoral” budget.

The prolonged fiscal stalemate highlights what’s at stake in budget talks. It’s the right frame for the legislative and gubernatorial campaigns that will jumpstart with the end of the session.

Reformers are calling for fundamental policy changes: conforming public employee pensions to fiscal reality and private sector norms, streamlining state operations, ending unfunded mandates imposed by voter initiative, and reconciling long-term expenditures to available revenues.

Arrayed against them are public employee unions that benefit from the status quo, social service advocates decrying budget cuts, and liberal activists pushing for higher taxes.

We should be wary when politicians and lobbyists speak of budgets as “moral documents.” That’s not altogether wrong, but it’s not entirely right, either. There’s more to morality than the public purse.

In a recent reflection on the Archbishop of Canterbury, a cleric who occasionally and unproductively strayed into politics, John O’Sullivan quoted the late Anglican journalist T.E. Utley’s thoughts on politics and religion.

“Christianity does not tell us what answers to give in politics,” Utley wrote, “it tells us what questions to ask.”

The answers to questions raised by personal conviction will often lead political partisans in different directions. Utley’s comment reminds us that people of faith and goodwill can disagree on how best to serve the less fortunate, educate the young and organize our tax system. Some want bigger government and higher taxes, and want to redistribute wealth. Others emphasize limited government and personal responsibility, and promote economic opportunity and mobility. It’s a conundrum on a continuum.

In the 1990s, the welfare reform debate challenged the culture of dependency fostered by a growing welfare state. Today’s health care discussions involve a similar attempt to identify the proper degree of government intervention.

Even when the role of government is agreed upon, there are legitimate concerns about accountability, efficiency and performance. Sometimes, we pay too much for what we get.

In Olympia, the state budget grew too fast in the good times and has had to contract during the recession. To avoid deeper cuts in social services and education in the future, it’s appropriate to look at bringing public employee compensation in line with private sector standards. Hence the pension and health care reforms.

Attorney General Rob McKenna, the leading Republican candidate for governor, recently laid out his budget principles. Budget white papers are often the parsley of politics (looks good on the plate but is primarily decorative). McKenna’s paper is suitable for consumption.

He sounds familiar themes: make education the top priority and pursue structural reforms. Among his specific proposals: He wants the Legislature to be able to alter collective bargaining agreements during fiscal emergencies. He supports a form of contracting out that allows state employees to compete for the work. He’ll push for legislation to reduce lawsuit costs. He wants to contain Medicaid costs and have state employees pay a higher share of their health insurance premiums, like their private sector counterparts.

These aren’t novel ideas, just the kind of good, common sense budget policy many of us have called for in the past. They’re consistent with the policies proposed by the bipartisan coalition that took control of the Senate budget last month. Democratic candidate Jay Inslee should echo some of these principles when he releases his own plan.

A statewide budget debate is overdue. The last gubernatorial campaign took place as the economy was cratering. It was still possible (if barely so) to argue our state would be spared the recession’s worst effects. Four years on, we know better. While voters say jobs and the economy are the dominant political concerns, our fiscal challenges cannot be ignored.

There are plenty of questions, of conscience and conviction. We should expect clear, candid and sustainable answers from the candidates.

Richard S. Davis, president of the Washington Research Council, writes on public policy, economics and politics. His email address is rsdavis@simeonpartners.com.