Lawmakers should consider repeal of unfunded initiatives

And, in the future, voter-approved initiatives should have to include a clear funding source.

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The seemingly endless fiscal crisis that's gripped state government for the past few years won't solve itself. Lawmakers must reduce spending or raise revenue.

Given the Great Recession has left the public with a low tolerance for any kind of tax increase, lawmakers have been whittling away at programs.

They have, for example, suspended two voter-approved initiatives that were aimed at improving education by lowering class sizes and boosting teacher pay. The problem is the two initiatives -- I-728 and I-732 -- were approved more than a decade ago without a specific way to fund them. Lawmakers were supposed to put more money toward education but with no extra cash just lying around, they have opted to routinely suspend these initiatives.

So, in a nod toward reality, some lawmakers -- including Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla -- have embraced the idea of changing the state constitution to mandate any future initiatives include a specific funding plan. Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, has taken a stand in favor of the idea.

"The Legislature can't tell us to do something without funding," Gregoire said late last year as she looked for ways to bridge a multi-billion dollar gap between projected state revenue and anticipated funding. "When the people act on an initiative, they are the Legislature. They accept the same responsibility that the Legislature does."

Lawmakers should look to the future and make this important change in the initiative process.

It also makes sense to look to the past and repeal voter-approved mandates that don't have clear funding sources. I-728 and I-732 would be a good starting place. No, this isn't particularly fair to the folks who were able to get the initiatives approved. However, since it is unlikely they will ever be fully funded, this is a nod to reality.

And it gives supporters a chance to get meaningful initiatives on the books with funding sources -- whether through a new tax or fee or by using funds already in place.

When voters see the choices before them -- reduced class size but a slight hike in the property tax, as a hypothetical example -- they will have more information on which to make their decision.

This year -- just like the past few years -- the budget gap will be filled until the next revenue projection shows projected spending will soon outpace revenue.

Some sanity can be brought to this process by repealing at least some of the unfunded voter-approved mandates. This will give lawmakers a more realistic picture of the budget situation when they begin to figure out what programs to fund, what should be cut and whether taxes need to be increased.

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