Legislators: How to Go Home WITHOUT Raising Taxes

According to media reports, lawmakers and the governor "face the toughest time writing a new spending plan since 1993." (Ammons, AP)

Indeed, with two new voter-approved education initiatives to fund, energy costs rising dramatically, traffic congestion the worst it s ever been, and the usual gauntlet of special interests clamoring for more funding, it is a daunting task.

The question is: Will lawmakers resist the urge to solve these problems by squeezing more money out of taxpayers? Will they get serious about eliminating government inefficiencies and finding new methods of meeting our budget needs?

Governor Locke shows no inclination to do so. Instead, he and many legislators seem intent on discarding what remains of the state spending limit (I-601), claiming the state faces a billion dollar shortfall for the next biennium. They're advocating numerous tax and fee increases and working to add a tax package for transportation to November's ballot.

Governor Locke s own budget proposal calls for a $2 billion increase in spending over the current budget. Meanwhile, the two education initiatives passed in November earmark a combined $795 million in mandatory spending.

Writing the new budget seems like a monumental task for legislators. However, a little "reality therapy" can go a long way in crafting a workable budget. The state will have more than enough money to meet budget needs if legislators implement a simple and more sensible budgeting process.

Right now, the 26 policy committees in the House and Senate hold hearings and pass legislation before they even know how much money is available. This makes it impossible to prioritize spending. And once an expenditure is on the list, it becomes indispensable.

If a budget crunch occurs, lawmakers believe the only option is to raise taxes to continue paying for the program. In reality, taking a new approach to building the budget means no new taxes will be necessary to meet the current needs of state government. How about trying this: The legislature uses the November 2000 revenue forecast as the official revenue projection for 2001-03 instead of the March 2001 forecast. This gives the legislature $22.3 billion to spend, about $1.2 billion more than 1999-01. Prepared by Bob Williams, Senior Research Analyst (360) 956-3482 or effwa@effwa.org

Of that $22.3 billion, the legislature puts 2% into a reserve fund for state emergencies. This would amount to $446 million, leaving nearly $21.9 billion available for spending. The legislature debates spending priorities in January and passes a budget resolution by January 31st to establish spending ceilings for K-12, Higher Education, General Government, Compensation (state employees and teachers), and Human Services.

If these suggestions are followed: Each policy committee will have a budget in which to prioritize spending for all its proposed measures. In deciding priorities, the committees can be directed to review agency mission statements and previous performance-based benchmarks. This will require legislators to review existing and proposed budgets, evaluate agency priorities, and ask the tough questions. Legislators on the policy committees can be required to submit their budget, with performance measures, to the appropriations committees by February 28th. The legislature will soon discover no new taxes are necessary. The new budgeting process will also ensure that state government is getting the most for every taxpayer dollar it spends.