Washington lawmakers, try these ideas for reforms
Washington state's deficit will not go away forward. The gap between spending and revenues will continue to widen unless the Legislature makes serious cuts and reforms to bend the spending line downward. The Seattle Times editorial board offers some suggestions.
Seattle Times Editorial
STATE Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup, has been circulating a version of the chart below. The lines go five years out, with spending growing faster than revenue. Had the chart included last week's Washington Supreme Court ruling on education, the gap might be even wider.
The chart means the Legislature, which convenes Monday, cannot solve the state's budget problem with short-term gimmicks like employee furloughs, delayed payments and "raided" funds. It needs to change laws.
"Let's start looking long-term," Kastama says.
Some liberal Democrats would begin with taxes, but moderates like Kastama, as well as Republicans, say: Reforms first. We agree, and offer a number of reforms. Two involve repealing a favored tax status and the rest would reduce spending:
• Repeal unfunded promises, including the class-size and K-12 cost-of-living initiatives and paid family leave. These have been suspended already, but repeal will save billions in the future. "Either get rid of 'em or do 'em," says Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw.
• Reform state pensions by placing new hires in 401(k)-type plans. Alternatively, the state could keep defined-benefit plans but stop counting overtime in setting the retirement benefit. That would stop some gaming of the system. The Legislature could also make early retirement less attractive by using standard actuarial tables to set the benefit. This would save $100 million a year in the first 25 years.
• Modify the state collective-bargaining law so that in a financial emergency the governor could cancel the economic part of labor contracts without having to wait for a year. Also the state should no longer have to maintain the old salary of an employee "bumped" into a lesser job.
• The state employee share of health-insurance premiums should be raised from 15 to 25 percent, as in the private sector. K-12 employees could be put into new regional health-insurance pools with management up for bid, as suggested by state Auditor Brian Sonntag. By replacing many small pools, a standard health benefit would save money.
• Put Medicaid clients into managed care with an approved list of drugs. "It will be painful but it can be done," says Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina.
• Set up something like the federal base-closure commission to recommend shutting down whole programs or, alternatively, to recommend layoffs at the management level. This is to get around the problem of managers protecting themselves during cuts.
• Curb welfare cheating by clamping down on the easy replacement of "lost" benefit cards, and also by having the cards be useless for cash withdrawals. "Put their picture on it," says Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield.
• End joint and several liability for lawsuits against the state, which allow the state to be only 1 percent at fault but have to bear 100 percent of the burden. Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, says this would save the state millions.
• Give more management flexibility to the University of Washington and Washington State University — an idea of Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle — and remove barriers throughout government to contracting out-of-state work (Zarelli).
• Tax the tribes by reopening the state agreements on Indian-operated gambling. Washington is big on other "sin taxes." Why not this?
• Require that tax preferences expire every 10 years if not renewed. This is a proposal of Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle.
Some of these will seem impossibly bold, but what are the Legislature's options? A big new tax? We don't think so.