Budget-balancing plan teeters right - Conservative group suggests ending state's liquor monopoly, selling off surplus lands, prison privatization

The Associated Press
The Bellingham Herald


OLYMPIA, WA- A conservative think tank, key Republican legislators and Democratic state Auditor Brian Sonntag on Thursday offered up a menu of ideas for overhauling state government and easing the budget deficit.

Proposals range from abolishing the state liquor monopoly and selling off surplus state lands to restoring state spending caps and turning some parks over to private operation.

Other ideas include private construction and operation of prisons, abolishing the state's presidential primary, and trimming the state payroll.

Some of the proposals from the Washington Policy Center, including performance audits, repeal of workplace ergonomics rules and privatizing the passenger ferries, already are moving through the Legislature.

Republican budget leaders in the Senate and House said many of the proposals, including a state government hiring freeze and more contracting out of state services, will be helpful as they try to close a $2.4 billion budget gap.

The proposal for state government spending limits, to restore the caps imposed under voter-approved Initiative 601, is the subject of Tim Eyman's latest initiative proposal, as well as potential state legislation.

Senate budget Chairman Dino Rossi, R-Sammamish, said the two dozen proposals are welcomed by budget hawks. All too often, the Legislature hears only from "defenders of the status quo," he said at a joint news conference.

The deficit-cutting ideas are like a "voice in the wilderness" in a capital city that has become "the land of bureaucrats and the land of the status quo," added Rep. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale.

House Minority Leader Cathy McMorris, R-Colville, said lawmakers need to fix the immediate budget problem and then learn to write budgets that are sustainable in future years.

Rep. Barry Sehlin, R-Oak Harbor, the Republicans' budget leader in the House, said tighter spending limits would provide the discipline lawmakers need. He also supported the think tank's call for a constitutional amendment to create a hard-to-tap "rainy day" reserve fund.

Several Democrats also lent their support. Sonntag said lawmakers in both parties and both houses are embracing his request for authority to do performance audits on state agencies and programs. Currently, he is limited to fiscal audits, but can't study the effectiveness of programs.

He called it a missing tool for making state government better.

The House plans to approve his legislation, sponsored by Rep. Mark Miloscia, D-Federal Way, on Monday. The plan is expected to clear the Senate, too, but Gov. Gary Locke hasn't said if he will approve it.

Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, pitched his idea for turning state liquor sales over to the private sector. That would save the cost of salaries and benefits for 1,000 state employees, and provide better service, choice and convenience, he said.

"The flip side of the gloom and doom in Olympia is that we can use this as an opportunity to do things differently, to think outside the box," he said.


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