LAST year the Republicans and “roadkill” Democrats who briefly took power in the Washington State Senate operated under the slogan, “Reform before revenue.” They would resist tax increases until they had money-saving reforms. They passed some reforms, and the reforms have already paid off.
Legislators should be thinking along these lines again.
The state faces a projected shortfall of about $2.4 billion. Part of it reflects the weak economy and part, the Washington Supreme Court’s McCleary decision, which calls for greater state support of schools. Reform probably won’t fill the whole gap, but it can fill a lot of it. Here are some options:
• In 2012, the Legislature considered a pension proposal to stop subsidizing early retirement for new state employees. Lawmakers reduced the subsidy, but did not end it. They could end it, and promise new hires the same discounts as private pensions have.
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• In 2011, lawmakers considered a proposal for the Department of Labor and Industries to allow injured workers to accept lump-sum payments for lost income. They allowed it only for workers over 55, a restriction that made no particular sense. They should allow it generally, as Oregon does, and save a lot more money, as Oregon does.
• Several years ago, Gov. Chris Gregoire asked state employees to increase their share of health-insurance premiums from 12 percent to 26 percent, because private-sector employees were closer to 26 percent. She settled for 15 percent. That issue is now open in contract negotiations. The percentage should be raised.
• More than a year ago, outgoing state Auditor Brian Sonntag issued a report saying the state could save tens of millions of dollars by consolidating teachers’ medical plans. Last year, a bill was introduced to do that. It was watered down, and the big money-saver in it was taken out. Legislators could revive the bill.
• They should look at contracting out certain state services, which is done successfully in other states. The law enacted a decade ago expanding collective bargaining for state employees had a contracting-out provision, but it has rarely been used.
• When they consider revenue, legislators should start by examining tax breaks, some of which are decades old. In the last session they ended one for large banks. A bipartisan commission has recommended ending the preference for high-tech research and development.
• Finally, there is the tax-swap idea, which is to raise the state property tax while lowering local school-levy taxes by a similar gross amount. Gov.-elect Jay Inslee denounced one version of it during his campaign, but there are other versions.
Each of these reforms would require an uncomfortable fight. But the state faces red ink whether legislators like it or not, and the McCleary decision mandating funding for public education multiplies it.
Also, voters have just re-enacted the law that requires two-thirds of each legislative house, or a vote of the people, to raise taxes. The Washington Supreme Court is reviewing that law and may erase it, but it cannot erase the strong sentiment behind it.
People want good schools and they don’t want their taxes to go up unnecessarily. Probably that is not entirely possible, but it is partly possible.
“Reform before revenue” is where to start.