GOP proposes a smarter fix

In losing the first big budget vote of the session Monday, House Republicans in Olympia may have won considerable credibility.

Rather than sitting on the sidelines complaining about the big-spending ways of majority Democrats, as they have in recent years, Republicans stepped up and offered an alternative that set clearer priorities and dealt much more decisively with the tough budget realities lawmakers face.

While Democrats voted to keep expensive social programs on life support and cut deeply into education to bring the current budget closer to balance, the GOP proposed eliminating programs that are unlikely to survive the next round of cuts anyway, and restore badly needed investments in elementary education.

“Why pay for programs today that we can’t afford tomorrow?” House Republican budget leader Gary Alexander asked Monday.

It’s a rational, responsible approach that we hope can find bipartisan support in the Senate, even though it failed to win the day in the House.

Democrats’ insistence on keeping two desirable but now unaffordable programs limping along — Disability Lifeline, which gives cash and medical assistance to disabled folks who can’t work, and the Basic Health Plan, which subsidizes coverage for the working poor — won’t offer their beneficiaries a long-term solution, because they’ll almost certainly have to be eliminated in the 2011-13 budget, which faces a $4.6 billion deficit.

It will, however, cost local schools plenty. The Marysville School District, for example, faces laying off up to 50 nonteaching staff by March 1 because of cuts it’s being forced to make in this year’s budget. (By law, teachers already under contract can’t be laid off during the school year.) The Snohomish School Board last week voted to cut $676,000 for the rest of the current school year.

The House Democrats’ budget lops $42.3 million from the K-4 class-size-reduction program for the rest of the current school year, money Republicans proposed to keep in place.

The retroactive cuts, Republicans pointed out during floor debate Monday, punish school districts that have budgeted responsibly in tough times. They also come despite a judge’s ruling that the state already wasn’t meeting its constitutional duty to fund basic education.

With an even larger deficit looming in the two-year budget lawmakers will take on next, Monday’s action is worrisome. Perhaps a more far-sighted solution will come in the Senate, where a coalition of Republicans and moderate Democrats could form to make the difficult but inevitable choices the House avoided. Such action might encourage enough moderates in the House to reconsider their options and act more decisively.

House Republicans, to their credit, have shown it can be done.

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