Legislature makes best of rotten choices

Lawmakers were forced to make cuts to salaries in an effort to bridge the $5.1 billion gap between projected revenue and anticipated expenses.

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The state Legislature had a full plate filled with a lot of awful things. And we aren't talking broccoli.

Lawmakers had to write a budget for the next two years in which the projected revenue was $5.1 billion less than the anticipated expenses. As a result, not everything could be fully funded and not everybody would be happy. In fact, it's possible nobody is happy.

Nevertheless, after a 105-day regular session and a 30-day special session, the Democrat-controlled House and Senate found a way to trim nearly $4.6 billion in spending.

These cuts include a reduction in salary for state employees, including teachers. Most workers face 3 percent cuts in pay and hours worked in each of the next two years. School administrators will see a similar 3 percent reduction while teachers and classified workers at schools could see a 1.9 percent pay cut.

That's painful and very unfortunate. It does little to help the morale of state employees, many of whom have seen their pay frozen for the past few years. For teachers, at least, the cuts could be restored by local school districts if -- and that's a big if -- money is available.

Lawmakers had to make some difficult and unpopular decisions to balance the budget, but it had to be done.

And minority Republicans were given a voice in the process, particularly in the Senate where Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, serves as the minority leader.

Hewitt said the negotiating sessions were grueling. Gov. Chris Gregoire would call the Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate together, close the door and would not let them out until agreement was found.

The process was difficult, Hewitt said, but he found satisfaction in being included in putting together the budget and revamping the workers' compensation system.

"It was the most intense time I have had in my life," Hewitt said.

A bipartisan compromise on workers' compensation was hammered out that is expected to save employers and the state hundreds of millions of dollars while still being fair to workers.

The budget has cuts in many areas, although it does increase spending on social programs, many of which are mandated. This is why writing a budget was difficult and frustrating for Democrats and Republcians.

Ironically, all this cutting takes place even though the state expects to take in $4 billion more in state revenues in the next budget cycle than over the last two years.

About half of that new revenue, however, will be used to replace the $2.1 billion in federal stimulus money used to plug holes in programs for the past two years.

But, Hewitt notes, this is first two-year state budget in over a decade to actually spend less than the state expects to collect.

That, at least, is pointing Washington in the right direction.

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