Editorials

State budget bodes well for Republican candidates

If voters weren't angry enough already, Gov. Chris Gregoire signed a series of tax increases last month that are certain to increase the frustration level.

We're not unsympathetic to the Democrats. The economic recession took a giant bite out of state revenues, leaving the majority party responsible for dealing with a $2.8 billion deficit.

Sure, they're hardly innocent bystanders. Democrats set the stage by ramping up state spending to unsustainable levels during the good times.

But that doesn't make it any easier to balance the budget when revenues plunge.

And we're not enamored with the Republicans, either. Too much of their rhetoric sounds like either the same old platitudes or a stump speech for November.

Their call for balancing the budget without raising taxes would have been more impressive if they'd showed where they'd cut $2.8 billion.

In our experience, the enthusiasm for slashing government spending is a lot more subdued when people have a clearer idea about exactly what services they'll lose.

But the Republicans in Olympia were right on important points. If Democrats had been more open to the minority's ideas for dealing with this crisis, voters would have been better served.

One good idea was to meet early and identify cuts that might draw bipartisan support. Delaying the savings only deepens the deficit.

A more cooperative approach might have rallied enough support in the Legislature to overcome opposition to needed changes.

The state's liquor monopoly comes to mind. State Auditor Brian Sonntag's office recently found that Washington could increase revenue by as much as $277 million over five years by changing the current system.

It's only a small step toward solvency, but lawmakers on both sides of the aisle see the potential. It's disconcerting that Democrats didn't manage to pick off even this low-hanging fruit before considering tax increases.

Expect to hear Republican candidates drive that point home as this year's campaigns heat up.

Democrats have to be worried. The picture from Olympia wasn't pretty. The $31 billion supplemental two-year budget only emerged after lawmakers extended the legislative session by a month.

It didn't help that the only way to do it was to overturn the voter-mandated requirement for a two-thirds majority to institute new taxes.

The end result only looks like a balanced budget if you squint. It's a hodge-podge of new taxes, cuts in education and other government programs, federal dollars and some creative accounting.

Much of the public's ire is aimed at the nearly $800 million tax package enacted to help balance the budget.

A lot of the new taxes were tagged to nonessentials -- cigarettes, bottled water, soda, candy, gum and mass-produced beer.

The Legislature also increased the business and occupation tax on doctors, lawyers, hairdressers and other service providers.

That package may be less of a drag on the state's economy than a general increase in the sales tax, but the Democrats will have a tough time putting a positive spin on it.

Republicans complain that the Legislature merely "kicked the can" into the next session without addressing the state's underlying financial troubles.

They're right. The growth in state government is unsustainable. Temporary fixes and hopes for a better tomorrow won't change that.

It might be unfair to expect the Legislature to fix the state's fiscal mess in the middle of the two-year cycle, when their task is to supplement the existing biennial budget rather than draft a complete document.

But next year, lawmakers must make fundamental changes that bring the cost of state government under control. It won't be easy.

The public's desperation for more fiscal responsibility in Olympia seems likely to translate to some additional seats for Republicans.

It's a long climb to a majority for the GOP. The ratio of Democrats to Republicans is 61-37 in the House and 31-18 in the Senate.

But it's realistic to expect the Republicans to gain enough ground to be relevant in the legislative debate again.

A better balance may be the perfect prescription for the state's financial ills. When ideas have to compete, better policy is the natural result.

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