The state's deepening financial crisis may finally force lawmakers to make some fundamental changes in Washington's ineffective budget process.
One can hope, anyway.
Our enthusiasm is weakened by a skepticism born of experience. Washingtonians have been disappointed before by hopeful signs that Olympia might be ready for meaningful reform.
The latest projections show a $3 billion deficit in the two-year budget cycle that begins next year. State government may not have to wait that long to take its next beating, however.
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Unless Congress comes through with an additional $480 million in Medicaid funds for the state in the next few weeks, Gov. Chris Gregoire won't have any choice but to cut state spending this year.
She could call a special session of the Legislature to deal with the shortfall or institute an across-the-board cut of around 4 percent -- more if she wants to maintain a reserve. But those are her only options.
Whatever happens in the short term -- a last-minute federal bailout or cuts in the current state budget -- the need for a long-term fix remains unchanged.
Plenty of people, including Gregoire, have warned for years against the state's "roller-coaster" budget process.
Not that it's done any good.
Sure, reform gets lip service in tough times, but when the economy rebounds, so does state spending. From there, it's only a matter of time until the next economic downturn launches a new round of cuts.
Will this time be different?
Maybe the dose of reality inflicted by the length and depth of the current recession can outweigh the political pressures from vested interests.
Gregoire's recent instructions to state agencies for the 2011-13 budget strikes the right tone. It's a good start toward a more stable and sustainable state budget.
Whether it's any more than a start depends on how successful the governor is in leading the state toward a more rational system.
Her call for reviving the priorities of government budget process, which creates a rational means for making spending decisions, is a good start.
"We are going to challenge every program in state government with a series of tough questions to ensure we are getting the best value for the most essential functions of state government," Gregoire told reporters last month.
Among the questions: Is it an essential service? Can others provide it? Can it be eliminated? Should users pay more? Are there more cost-effective ways get it done?
Gregoire also appointed a panel of 32 leaders from around the state to make recommendations on changing the process.
Known as the Governor's Committee on Transforming Washington's Budget, the panel has been saddled with an appropriately lofty title, but can its members live up to it?
Just about every interest has a seat at the table -- labor, business, environmentalists, conservatives, liberals, cities, counties, ports, educators, media and the health care community. The complete list is on the governor's website -- www.governor.wa.gov.
The theory is solid. Armed with consensus from such a diverse group of interests, the Legislature ought to be better able to resist pressure to continue business as usual. Given enough political cover, lawmakers might even enact some real budget reform.
But building a consensus around a proposal for transforming Washington's budget is a tall order, requiring advocates of special interests to put the state's interests first.
We'd prefer to be more hopeful than skeptical about the chances, but it's hard not to succumb to pessimism.
While Gregoire was announcing plans for dealing with the next $3 billion shortfall, the Washington Federation of State Employees was filing a lawsuit to block the state from furloughing workers to save money.
The Legislature passed a law earlier this year that would furlough up to a third of the state's 110,000 workers for 10 days as the state struggled to deal with our last multibillion-dollar shortfall.
If the union prevails, the likely result would be another round of across-the-board cuts to make up the difference. That's a poor way to manage limited resources, since the most needed services and the most frivolous take the same hit.
Our skeptical side says it may take even tougher times to force the spirit of compromise and shared sacrifice needed to produce meaningful change.
We're hoping to be proved wrong.