Gregoire’s final budget is not something to ignore

State law requires outgoing governors to prepare a state budget for the next two years, knowing full well it will be diced and spliced and barely recognized by the time the new governor and Legislature are done with it.

Nevertheless, the 2013-15 budget proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire is not a throwaway document, but rather, a useful tool to start the debate on how the state will move forward over the next two years.

Gregoire understands that newly elected Gov. Jay Inslee will have his own set of priorities and unforeseen circumstances to address when he crafts his first budget.

But he would be wise to use this budget as a template to start to shape his own spending plan.

The state Senate with its unholy majority alliance of 23 Republicans and two Democrats will find plenty to criticize in the lame-duck governor’s budget. They, along with Inslee, claim they can build budgets free of any new taxes.

Good luck on that one. Consider two major fiscal challenges that make the no-new-taxes plan hard to imagine without damaging cuts to social service programs, environmental protection, higher education and other core areas of government.

First, there is the state Supreme Court ruling to fully fund basic education, a court order expected to cost some $1 billion over the next two years.

Then there’s the lingering pain of the Great Recession. A slow economic recovery equals a gloomy revenue forecast that could leave a $975 million hole in the next biennial budget.

In her budget, Gregoire meets these budgetary challenges with a combination of extensions on temporary taxes, program cuts, a wholesale fuel tax, a tax on soda and repeal of the sales tax exemption on candy and gum. She also suspends teacher salary increases required by voter-approved Initiative 702, repeals some tax breaks and banks on savings through government reforms.

In addition, state employees would have pay restored to 2010 levels in the wake of two-year, 3 percent pay cuts.

Set aside for a moment the details on dollar amounts, specific taxes and program cuts and enhancements. Whatever budget is approved by the Legislature and new governor, it will need to rely on many of the basic principles spelled out in Gregoire’s final budget.

Since the Great Recession, the state has reduced existing and projected spending by $11 billion. The number of state employees has declined 12.5 percent in the past four years.

To simply keep cutting the state budget and workforce is unacceptable.

The public needs to know there are consequences when certain state programs are pared back. Fewer juvenile parole officers has led to a 48 percent increase in the recidivism rate of juvenile offenders. A disturbing uptick in reports of abuse at group homes for people with developmental disabilities is in part the result of fewer DSHS investigators and closure of state institutions to save money.

As she leaves office, Gregoire has prepared a budget that restores some general fund revenue to help operate the state parks system, which was forced in a failed experiment to rely on user fees alone. She also directs more than $500 million to cleanup of Puget Sound.

Community safety is on the minds of everyone in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., elementary school shootings. Gregoire wants to beef up DSHS mental health background checks for people applying for licenses to own and conceal weapons. Hard to argue with that.

There is something for everyone to love or hate in Gregoire’s final budget. The fact remains: She took the assignment seriously, and the product is worthy of consideration.