Legislature's budget patch won't hold

The budget fix uses more federal bailout money and one-time accounting maneuvers.

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So, after going nearly a month over schedule the Legislature has filled the $2.8 billion budget gap. Or has it?

Sure, under the parameters established by state government, the supplemental budget is signed, sealed and delivered.

However, the patch on the budget hole isn't likely to hold if the economy doesn't recover with zeal -- and very, very quickly.

State government operates like this: Cuts to spending don't necessarily mean fewer dollars are being spent in a particular area. It's possible an agency or program might spend more from one year to the next even though lawmakers "cut" its budget.

How is that? State budget requests are essentially wish lists or cost projections. So the cuts lawmakers make are not necessarily to spending from the previous budget cycle, but cuts to the wish lists or projections.

Still, that does result in services being reduced and jobs being lost. Some of the wishes are fulfilled and some spending is mandated by the federal government and by contracts state government has with its employees and vendors.

The patch job lawmakers just completed to the $31 billion account that funds the day-to-day operations of government includes some cuts, federal bailout money, one-time accounting maneuvers and higher taxes.

The Legislature's tax increases, which are expected to generate about $800 million, add a few pennies to the price of bottled water, soda and beer and put a surcharge on service businesses, such as doctors, lawyers, accountants and hairdressers.

But while higher taxes are concerning in the midst of a recession, that's far from the biggest problem with this budget fix. Since the patch counts on $625 million in federal dollars as well as another $600 million in fund transfers and reserves, we fear that when that cash is gone the budget holes will be even bigger.

Lawmakers are counting on the economy to rev up right away and consumers to start spending to boost the sales-tax revenue.

That might occur, and we hope it does, but it's not realistic to expect sales-tax revenue to climb as fast as it did a few years back.

Making actual reductions in spending is incredibly difficult. The state is mandated to fully fund public schools, for example -- although nobody knows exactly what that means.

The federal government mandates the state provide medical care and other entitlements. This leaves areas such as higher education to take hits, which end up driving up tuition and curbing access to a college education.

Lawmakers need to rethink their approach. Lasting cuts to spending are needed. Now is the time -- without the pressure of a budget deadline -- to prepare for the next budget emergency.

For example, some employees had their wages frozen but others, those in unions, continued to see them climb. Lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire need to be frank with union officials and negotiate wage freezes or even cuts.

State spending must be sustainable long into the future. The budget deal lawmakers made isn't.

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