Bipartisan Senate budget a step in the right direction

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OLYMPIA -- During the 2011 legislative session the state Senate did something that seems remarkable these days: Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle came together to write and pass a bipartisan state budget.

Aiming for common ground, we crafted a spending plan featuring cost-saving reforms that have already proven their worth.

Fast-forward to November 2011. Two reports of declining state revenues had caused a big gap to open in the budget, prompting the governor to call the Legislature into a special session to begin making changes. We made good progress and ended our work with a head start on the 2012 legislative session.

As we wrapped up, Gov. Chris Gregoire publicly urged lawmakers to "continue negotiations and discussions to ensure a full budget is passed early in the regular session."

That was exactly the intention of Senate Republicans entering 2012. Our goal was to work together to build a strong, bipartisan budget that included reforms aimed at putting government on a path toward financial sustainability. We also wanted to act quickly, since every day of delay was costing taxpayers millions.

Unfortunately, the majority party was on a different page for the first two-thirds of the session. Its focus was on social issues, and only a couple of budget-committee meetings took place during those first few weeks.

Our attempts to again write a budget together were dashed by the other side's reluctance to make difficult choices. Eventually the majority party proposed its own budget, but within three days -- last Friday, day 54 of the 60-day session -- it was clear that budget would not receive enough votes for passage in the Senate.

The people of Washington had waited for the Legislature to do its job and produce a sustainable budget. The Senate majority's inability to produce a budget was instead steering us toward an extended session. We had to act.

Last Friday, using a rule that allows a majority of senators to bring legislation directly before the full Senate, we proposed and then passed a bipartisan operating budget that received votes from both sides of the aisle -- the 25 votes needed to break the logjam. The budget we passed is built around three priorities:

Do not spend more money than revenues available;

Do not use money that isn't really there -- such as pushing payments into the next biennium and;

Leave the state with a reasonable ending-fund reserve, which is critical in the event our economy continues to falter.

Some in the majority party have taken issue with how the Senate came to pass its second bipartisan budget in as many years. More important is the fact that this budget puts us in a much better position from which to negotiate a compromise with the House, which adopted its budget Feb. 29.

The Senate bipartisan budget prioritizes existing revenue toward core services and programs. It appropriates more for K-12 than the House majority-party budget proposal, and preserves the social safety net by offering greater support for the elderly, disabled and mentally ill. It leaves a much larger ending-fund reserve and assumes major reforms, such as pension reform for new state employees that will save taxpayers billions of dollars down the road.

Yes, the Senate budget does include some reductions to services. Let's remember, however, that before the economic downturn state government spending had skyrocketed by 33 percent in just four years. At the time we warned that rate of growth was not sustainable -- and it turns out we were right.

Considering we've already put in one special session toward closing the budget gap, it's unfortunate to be heading toward another.

But if we have to remain in Olympia a few extra days to build a sustainable and responsible budget, taxpayers win. As we work together with our colleagues across the aisle, I and my Republican colleagues will push to keep spending within available revenues, leave a strong ending-fund reserve, avoid budget gimmicks and enact major reforms. Those qualities attracted bipartisan support in the Senate, and they need to be in our final agreement.

Sen. Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla represents the 16th District and serves as leader of the Senate Republican Caucus.

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