State lawmakers: Miles to go before they sleep

The News TribuneJune 16, 2013 

The Legislature’s inability to approve a budget is starting to look dangerous, not just loopy.

State lawmakers are now in their third session, the Senate and House of Representatives having failed to agree on a spending plan in the first two.

The paralysis is partisan: The Senate is controlled by Republicans, the House by Democrats. Without action, much of state government could be shut down as of midnight June 30. That’s when the existing budget expires, and the Washington Constitution requires legislative approval for further spending.

While a shutdown isn’t likely, it’s got better odds than the Mayan doomsday. In the meantime, the state is running up against deadlines for preliminary actions, such as warning school employees of potential layoffs.

The Senate and House absolutely must agree on three things: an operating budget, a construction budget and a transportation package that would pay for critical highway projects around the state – including the completion of state Route 167 between Puyallup and the Port of Tacoma.

Republicans and Democrats may be within striking distance on overall spending, but they’re far apart on some of the specifics.

A couple of measures being pressed by the Senate aren’t worth fighting over. One is a move to “fix” compensation for injured workers.

As the law stands, permanently disabled workers in their 50s have the option of taking lump sum payments in lieu of lifelong pensions. A Senate bill would extend that option to workers in their 40s. This can hold until next year.

So can a measure that would let the state’s payday lenders loan more money for longer terms. It’s dumbfounding that some lawmakers cherish this industry so much that they’d hold the entire state budget hostage for its sake.

But the Senate deserves credit for trying to force education reforms. Compared to the House, it would spend more money on the K-12 system and earmark more for efforts to lift the performance of disadvantaged students.

The Senate also wants to prevent a sudden migration of local school taxes into employee compensation as the Legislature assumes the full burden of funding basic education.

Without some kind of legislative brake, some compliant school boards might treat “surplus” levy money as a windfall for their unions. This could perpetuate inequities among districts, with wealthy communities outbidding the poor for elite teachers.

To go home, lawmakers will have to split their differences. One thing that can’t be sacrificed is the potential for a better – not just more expensive – public education system.

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