Tap private sector for help

On their own, they won’t solve the state budget crisis, but two proposals introduced Thursday in Olympia deserve a big thumbs-up as creative steps in the right direction.

Both are prime sponsored by Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds, both have bipartisan backing, and both create opportunities for private enterprise to team up with government and provide sorely needed revenue.

Senate Bill 6465 would allow private businesses — restaurants, convenience stores, gas stations or other appropriate enterprises — to lease space and set up shop at state-owned highway rest areas.

SB 6466 would allow school districts to place advertising inside and on the outer sides of school buses, as long as it’s approved by the school board. Proceeds from such ads would go into the district’s general or transportation funds.

Shin’s ideas mark a welcome start to what should be a broader discussion of how the private sector can work with state government to provide services without increasing the tax burden. That’s crucial, because even after the current budget shortfall is fixed, plenty more red ink is forecast for the next one.

The state budget deficit is structural — lawmakers are consistently committing to more spending than revenues can sustain. The private sector can play a major role in solving the problem, if lawmakers will let it. Letting go of the state’s monopoly on liquor sales — hardly a core function of government — is one example. Another would be contracting out more state services.

Shin’s bills help move that discussion forward. They also include necessary safeguards.

For example, existing businesses near rest areas get a measure of protection. Before the state could enter into a lease with a commercial entity at a rest area, owners of similar services within a mile of freeway exits immediately before and after the rest area must be offered a right of first refusal, and they’d have 60 days to make a reasonable bid for the contract.

And nonprofit organizations that raise funds at rest areas could keep doing so.

In addition to creating a new revenue stream for the state through leases, easier access to services is sure to make many a long-haul traveler happy.

Concerns that school-bus ads would brainwash kids with pitches for sugary sodas or other less-than-healthful products could be aired in public, as elected school boards would have the final say. For safety reasons, ads wouldn’t be allowed on the outside front or back of buses.

These are relatively modest proposals, and good ideas on their own. Their greatest value, though, may be in their ability to spark a larger discussion of what private enterprise and government can do together.