Serious response to crisis

Worries that House Democrats were dragging their feet on a state budget were allayed Monday by a proposal that, while we might take issue with some details, gave the difficult process a welcome shot of momentum.

Generally, the House majority’s plan is serious, responsible and — with one possibly large exception — free of hasty decisions.

It’s also packed with painful cuts to education and health care. There’s no avoiding that, given $5.1 billion gap between planned spending and available revenue over the 2011-13 biennium.

It includes clear expressions of values — preserving Basic Health Plan coverage for 41,200 working poor, and maintaining medical and housing assistance under the Disability Lifeline program for 20,000 people. The governor called for eliminating both programs in her budget proposal, a rational alternative that preserved more funding for education. In such tough times, this is an area where reasonable people surely can disagree.

It attempts, as House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Ross Hunter (D-Medina) said, to avoid being penny wise and pound foolish. It preserves Apple Health, which helps 600,000 kids with health care, and family planning for thousands of low-income women, and early learning. All are investments that more than pay off down the road.

It sets aside a reasonably strong ending balance of $795 million to guard against further revenue drops or unforeseen expenses.

And it avoids irresponsible maneuvers that had been floated in recent weeks, like moving costs into the following biennium, borrowing against future revenue, and leaving the budget unbalanced. Such gimmicks only put off problems, probably making them worse, and risk increasing borrowing costs by damaging the state’s healthy bond rating.

One part of the plan that should sound alarms, though, is booking $300 million in revenue by leasing the state’s liquor distribution operations to a private entity.

We’re all for getting the state out of liquor sales and distribution, but this idea hasn’t been through any sort of public vetting process. When it comes to dismantling the state’s lucrative liquor monopoly, thoughtful decision making mustn’t fall victim to the temptation of quick money. One obvious question: Is $300 million the right place to start the bidding? How does anyone know? This is a long-term decision that needs to be treated with due diligence.

Now it’s the Senate’s turn to propose its budget, which is expected to happen by the beginning of next week. Assuming other key issues get settled (like workers compensation reform), that will leave two weeks to negotiate a budget deal and adjourn on time. Hunter and his House colleagues have made that look achievable.

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