As fashionable as it is to denigrate every level of government these days, lawmakers in Olympia are displaying an unusual degree of responsibility in dealing with the state's budget crisis.
With the exception of the protesters who allegedly broke the law to make their point last week, there aren't any bad guys in this effort to find a solution.
Even the protesters -- the law-abiding ones at least -- are playing an important role. The cuts proposed in the state budget will hurt real families in our state. That message needs to be heard.
At some point, however, everyone will be forced to accept the fact the Legislature is left with no option other than to slash spending.
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Lawmakers barely avoided a similar fate last year through a combination of one-time revenue transfers, new taxes and creative accounting.
The temptation to float some new gimmicks -- adding a 25th month of revenue to the two-year budget or borrowing against tobacco or lottery money, for example -- was certainly alive again this year.
But proposed budgets produced first by the governor, then by House Democrats and most recently by House Republicans have mostly avoided such pitfalls.
House lawmakers passed a budget plan produced by House Democrats that includes $4.4 billion in cuts, which doesn't appear to include a lot of tricky maneuvers that only delay the inevitable.
It's not scrubbed clean of every trick.
The plan as of Friday included $338 million in transferred money from other state funds to the state's general fund, for example.
But every budget proposed this year indicates lawmakers learned a difficult lesson from last year's session:
Failure to deal with the fundamental issue -- the gap between the cost of government programs and what taxpayers are willing to support -- results in even greater pain down the road.
Lawmakers were only able to produce a balanced budget in the last go-round by relying on $2.3 billion in emergency federal aid and a package of tax increases totaling around $800 million.
That won't work this year. The federal government has its own problems, and Washington voters not only rolled back most of last year's tax increases, but also passed an initiative that makes it almost impossible for lawmakers to approve any new increases.
The message from voters is clear -- make do with what you have. For the most part, the Legislature is headed that way.
House Republicans have produced an alternate budget that makes even deeper cuts. The document the Legislature eventually sends to Gov. Chris Gregoire is likely to look a lot like both proposals.
The Democrats' plan avoids $300 million in cuts with a plan to sell or lease the state's wholesale liquor distribution system to a private contractor.
The devil is in the details, but proponents of the measure concede it could end up costing the state $1.2 billion over 20 years.
Even if the plan makes money for the state treasury, selling Washington's monopoly on wholesale liquor distributions to fill a short-term budget need doesn't come close to privatizing the liquor industry.
It's a better idea to balance the budget through other means and take a systematic, deliberate approach to the liquor laws.
House Republicans' proposal would cut spending by $1.034 billion more than the Democratic plan, partly because it doesn't sell the state's wholesale liquor business.
Either way, family wage-earners will be put out of work, and some of the neediest residents of our state will be left without a safety net. There is no painless solution to the state's problem.
The Democrats' plan eliminates 1,619 more jobs in state government and higher education and relies on a 3 percent pay cut for most of workers who are left.
Teacher raises are suspended. Some retired teachers and other state retirees will no longer get the automatic cost-of-living raises they were promised. The plan also caps enrollment in the Basic Health Plan.
Colleges and universities take another hit under the proposal, with an additional $482 million trimmed from state spending on higher education. That will be partly offset by increased tuition -- 11 percent for community colleges and up to 13 percent for universities.
The Great Recession has left the state in a terrible dilemma. Delaying the day of reckoning has only made it worse.
More compromise is needed. Relying on even fewer crafty budget maneuvers would strengthen the Legislature's approach.
But state lawmakers are on a path to offer solutions that are painful, necessary and real. It's the only responsible thing to do.