A respectable compromise

Divided government, as state Rep. Marko Liias put it this week, takes longer.

Considering the final products churned out by the Legislature Tuesday night and past sunrise Wednesday, it was worth the wait.

An imperfect but reasonable budget bill closes a deficit, preserves funding for the most crucial social services and does little further damage to education. After billions in cuts the past four years, that’s saying something.

And a series of reform bills, insisted upon by a Senate coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats, will improve the state’s long-term fiscal footing.

The process of compromise was hard. Tensions were high; anger was expressed freely and frequently. In the end, no one got all of what they wanted. Which exactly how the process of legislative compromise is supposed to work.

Democrats, with majorities in both chambers, never mustered the necessary 25 votes in the Senate to pass their own budget bill. That opened the door for three of their members, Sens. Jim Kastama, Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon, to side with Republicans in order to force needed reforms in state worker pensions and the Legislature’s budgeting process.

They succeeded in reducing pension payouts for future state workers who take early retirement, which should save more than $1 billion over 25 years. (The timing was excellent, given Wednesday’s warning from the International Monetary Fund that governments worldwide are underestimating the life expectancy of their retirees, and need to scale back such perks to avoid fiscal disaster.)

And they forced a more sober look at the impact of future budgets, passing a bill that requires future spending plans to match projected revenue over four years.

Other reforms, passed earlier, also represent important steps forward. At the top of the list: a more meaningful system of teacher and principal evaluations was approved.

Democrats got a long-detested tax loophole closed, ending a credit on mortgages by out-of-state banks.

Lawmakers did not, however, leave themselves much budget breathing room. Just $320 million was left in reserve — only about 1 percent of total spending. That could vanish quickly if the fragile economic recovery stalls. Plenty of fingers will be crossed in anticipation of the June revenue forecast. With slower hiring, rising gas prices and continued uncertainty in Europe, another round of cuts is hardly out of the question.

For now, though, divided government has shown it can work. It may not be fast or friendly, but it’s not designed to be. Rather, it’s intended to produce laws that reflect the shared values of the voting population, imperfect though they may be.

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