The state Senate has approved a proposed amendment that would require the Legislature to pass a balanced budget — and prohibit spending or other actions that would create a future shortfall.

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OLYMPIA — While state lawmakers struggle to close a $1.5 billion budget shortfall, they’re also considering a constitutional amendment that would help prevent such gaps in the future.

The state Senate has approved a proposed amendment that would require the Legislature to pass a balanced budget — and prohibit spending or other actions that would create a future shortfall.

Constitutional amendments require a two-thirds vote in the Senate and House, and a simple-majority approval by voters. Senate Joint Resolution 8222 now goes to the House for consideration. It’s not clear how the measure will fare there.

If approved by the House, the amendment would go on the November ballot.

“If we’re going to come out of the session saying we really passed substantial reforms, having a balanced-budget amendment that goes before voters will be the strongest thing we can say that we’re serious about getting our financial house in order,” said Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, the prime sponsor of the measure.

Although it’s commonly believed the state is required to balance its budget, there’s no legal barrier that prevents deficit spending.

The closest thing Washington has to a balanced-budget requirement is a section in the state Budget and Accounting Act that says the governor must propose a balanced budget. It doesn’t say the Legislature or governor must approve one.

The proposed constitutional amendment would require lawmakers to pass a balanced budget starting in 2014, which would be the first year of the next two-year budget cycle.

In addition, it would require the state to project revenues and expenditures four years into the future. The two-year budget lawmakers write next year could not create a shortfall in the following biennial budget — unless there is another recession that requires tapping the state rainy-day fund.

This would represent a significant change for the state. The Legislature has frequently approved a balanced budget when forecasts showed there would be another shortfall to deal with two years later.

If this change were made to the state constitution, the Legislature next year would be forced to decide whether to fund or eliminate the class-size-reduction initiative, I-728, as well as I-732, which provides cost-of-living raises to teachers.

Lawmakers have repeatedly suspended the initiatives because of budget shortfalls, but have kept them on the books in case they figure out a way to pay for them. They’re projected to cost more than $1 billion in the next two-year budget.

A recent projection by the governor’s budget office going out to 2021 indicates the state will not have enough money to pay for the measures without finding additional revenue or reducing spending elsewhere.

“It would force a decision” on the initiatives, said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, who backs the bill. “Just kicking it down (the road) and leaving it as a liability, that every year we have to deal with, is not the way to conduct ourselves.”

Rep. Gary Alexander, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said he thinks the Senate proposal or something similar would find a lot of support in his caucus.

It’s not clear, though, if House Democrats will back it. House Ways and Means Chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said that for now he’s “unenthusiastic.”

“I don’t think you can legislate good judgment,” he said. “If you create a system with too many rules, you get smart people working on rules evasion.”

However, Rep. Deb Eddy, D-Kirkland, said moderate Democrats like herself are likely to coalesce around the Senate proposal or something similar and keep the measure in play in the House.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8266 or agarber@seattletimes.com. Material from The Seattle Times archives was used in this story.