Columnist Danny Westneat writes that the budget rebellion in Olympia fails to live up to the GOP leaders' own promises.
Thank you, state legislative rebels, for pulling off a political coup to veer the 2012 lawmaking session right off the road.
Seriously, the renegades who wrested control of the state Senate from the ruling Democrats did us one huge favor. One that I believe shook up more than just Olympia, but the entire framework of the coming statewide elections.
They exploded one of the enduring myths of local politics. The one that claims there’s so much waste and bloat in government that we can slash it without affecting the important stuff.
This myth has dominated politics recently. Partly that’s because there has been some truth to it — government did get too big, with too many missions, workers and something-for-everyone policies.
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But those days are over, at least at the state level. I’m not saying it’s all a model of efficiency, or ever will be. But the cuts officially have passed through the fat and now gone into muscle and bone.
How can I say that categorically? Because the rebellion in Olympia just proved it.
The 25 senators who wrested control from the liberals last weekend have spent months arguing that they could balance the budget with mostly pain-free prescriptions such as “resetting priorities.” No need for accounting gimmicks, they said. Or cuts to the state’s top priority, education. Most of all, there’s no call for new taxes, because there’s plenty of fluff yet to cut.
But when they got control for eight hours to pass their own budget, they failed to live up to any of the rhetoric. This budget included its own gimmick — a skipped payment into the pension system. Worse, it cut both public schools and the state’s university system, two things the budget hawks earlier had insisted wouldn’t be necessary.
“I’ll be working to keep K-12 education and higher education and services to our most vulnerable residents whole — they’ve seen enough reductions already,” Sen. Joe Zarelli, the Republicans’ budget chief, had vowed as recently as Feb. 16.
Mission not accomplished.
Why wasn’t it? Because the myth is stale. It turns out there are no easy, low-hanging cuts left. Republicans who had been promising them for years finally got their chance and could not produce them.
Right now the state employs only 59,250 general government workers. In a few months, when 1,000 liquor-store workers are due to be laid off, it will be down to near 58,000. You have to go to the mid-1990s to find state employment figures that low — back when we had a million fewer residents.
So Republicans ended up cutting schools instead, including trying to permanently cancel a mandate from voters for lower public-school class sizes (a cancellation which they euphemistically call a “reform”). Some of their own members apparently fought these cuts. But in the end they couldn’t figure another way.
All this goes against the central platform of the top Republican in the state, governor hopeful Rob McKenna. He has been promising huge spending increases on education. But, like the Senate rebels, he dismisses any talk of tax increases.
So now he’s in a bit of a box. How can that work? His own party just showed they couldn’t make this cognitive dissonance pencil out. How can he?
After what happened last weekend in Olympia, I think it’s now mandatory that we see some sort of McKenna plan. One that’s honest about where we get the money for all his proposed school spending. Vague promises won’t do. That’s just as true for the Democrats, by the way, such as McKenna’s opponent, Jay Inslee.
But mostly it’s time to put the myth to rest. If you hear any candidate going around saying that if we just apply some green-eyeshade prudence and “reforms” we can have a “sustainable” budget with absolutely no new taxes, all the while “putting education first,” now you’ll know for certain it’s baloney.
You can thank the conservative rebels for settling that.
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org.