A promising path to reform

To explain the legislative paralysis in Olympia, veteran Sen. Jim Kastama (D-Puyallup) uses an analogy. Think of state government as a bus, he says, where every interest group and lobbyist has a seat — and a brake lever. Once the bus starts moving, anyone aboard can stop it.

It’s a system that limits most of the work to the margins, preventing serious reform. Even in the current fiscal crisis, the budget will end up being balanced with a mixture of cuts to important programs, tax increases, use of remaining reserves, account transfers (borrowing, essentially) and one-time federal help.

Tax revenues are projected to remain relatively flat in the coming years. Still, government services won’t be reprioritized to any meaningful degree this year, and so the root of the state’s fiscal problems will be kicked further down the road, where they’ll grow even worse.

Reform? Restructuring? Any serious change? Forget it.

Part of the problem, to be sure, is that one party controls the Legislature and the governor’s mansion. If Republicans had any real leverage, more progress might have been made on basic reforms.

But it’s folly to think of that as a complete solution. The power of special interests would still hover imposingly over the Capitol.

Kastama and a bipartisan group of moderates think they have a solution. It’s worth a try.

They propose creating an Agency Reallocation and Realignment of Washington (Arrow) Commission, possibly comprised of distinguished and influential names like former Govs. Dan Evans, Booth Gardner and John Spellman, and former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, among others.

Their charge: Examine all of state government and recommend how to provide needed services within existing revenues for the next six years. In other words, lay on the table the tough decisions the Legislature seems powerless to make.

Then, like the proposals of the federal military base-closure commission, the Arrow Commission’s recommendations would be voted up or down, as is, by the Legislature — no amendments allowed.

Kastama’s bill didn’t get to the Senate floor this session, but is currently in the Senate’s budget bill as a proviso. Negotiators should keep it in the final budget bill when they return for a special session this week. Then, the governor must resist the predictable calls from the special-interest fringes to veto it, with one exception: Its work mustn’t be exempt from public disclosure.

Congress, which is at least as dysfunctional as our Legislature (and for mostly the same reasons), recently refused to approve a similar commission, one that would have made tough recommendations for reducing the federal deficit. President Obama created one himself, but Congress will be free to ignore it, along with our worsening fiscal crisis.

Our state can do better. Take the brakes away from the special interests.

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