Find common ground to pass state budget
Washington state Sen. Ed Murray, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, argues that common ground on the state budget can be found among Democrats, Republicans and moderates.
Special to The Times
The Legislature was not expected to adjourn on time Thursday because there is no agreement about how to bridge the $1 billion dollar hole in the state budget.
As budget chair in the Senate, I am well aware of the many expectations placed on the budget this year by those in the political middle and on either side of the aisle. Although some of these expectations are in conflict, I proposed a budget framework that aimed to accommodate them all.
Despite a recent, much-publicized takeover of the budget by minority Republicans — and the setback this has created — I believe lawmakers can still meet our diverse expectations.
What are they?
• Bipartisanship. In 2011, my first year as chair, I set up a bipartisan budget-writing process in the Senate. This process built trust with the minority party by sharing information and meeting regularly with the minority, changing a 90-old-year rule to better enable the minority to amend the budget on the floor of the Senate and, most importantly, incorporating ideas for improved government performance from all corners.
The resulting budget was jointly presented by me and the ranking Republican member of the budget committee, Sen. Joe Zarelli. It received support from 10 Republicans and 24 Democrats in the Senate.
This year, I continued to chair the budget committee as if this agreement were still in place. The minority party opted out. They decided to enlist three moderate Democrats and take over the budget in the final week of session, passing a budget in the Senate before the majority party or the public had any chance to see it or provide input. They refer to their tactics as "bipartisan."
• Protect education, higher education and the vulnerable. "I'll be working to keep K-12 education and higher education and services to our most vulnerable residents whole — they've seen enough reductions already," Sen. Zarelli said on Feb. 16.
These are also my priorities, but I put them into my budget. After three years of recessionary budgets that made $11 billion in cuts, primarily to K-12 and higher education, my proposal made no cuts to K-12 or higher education.
My proposal preserved the social-safety net, including programs like the Disability Lifeline for the temporarily disabled and state's food-assistance program.
Sen. Zarelli's budget cuts K-12 and higher education, including eliminating the Readiness to Learn program, cutting the Reading Corps program and cutting Medicaid funding for special-education students. It cuts tuition assistance for low-income college students, veterans and others. His budget eliminates the Disability Lifeline program.
• Reforms and long-term sustainability. This year, the Senate supported legislation to improve the performance of teachers and our public schools, establish an independent commission to reduce the footprint of state government, reduce Medicaid fraud, reduce our state debt limit, and to budget over four-year instead of two-year increments.
Those who took over the budget process have long called for these reforms, yet they cite a lack of reform as a reason for their actions.
• No gimmicks. Another justification for the takeover was their desire to avoid "gimmicks." The governor's proposal to delay a payment to school districts by 24 hours was cited as the prime offender — even though it was part of last year's bipartisan agreement.
Let me be clear: I believe that delaying — but making — a payment is preferable to cutting education programs, or even raising taxes. School administrators and teachers agreed.
Sen. Zarelli's proposal skips — not delays, but skips — a payment to our pension system. That is essentially taking out a loan, the cost of which will continue to grow for years to come. His proposal sweeps an account meant for cleanup of hazardous-waste sites, dumping dedicated money into the general fund.
I believe the public, had they had a chance to participate in the debate over the Republican alternative, would agree with me: Protect education.
This editorial page has accused Democrats of being concerned with hurt egos ["Senate earthquake changes budget landscape, editorial, March 5]. In fact, we're concerned about hurting students, young people and vulnerable people.
Instead of working through the existing bipartisan agreement, those who took over the budget process say their budget is a framework for negotiation. Negotiation is impossible without trust and a willingness to meet in the middle. If all lawmakers adopted this my-way-or-the highway attitude, the Legislature would cease to function.
For years, Democrats have moved to the middle ground. Now, in special session, we look forward to meeting the minority party there.
Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, is chair of the Washington Senate Ways and Means Committee.