Lawmakers get a ‘C+’ for the budget, an ‘F’ for process

It shouldn’t have taken state legislators six months and two special sessions to agree on a budget for the 2013-2015 biennium. Senate Republicans took the usual level of brinksmanship over petty policy bills to new and unproductive highs this year.

But let’s be grateful. At least lawmakers got a budget done before the midnight Sunday deadline and avoided the economic chaos of a government shutdown. The uncertainty rained upon South Sound state workers who received furlough notices and its ripple effect on our regional economy was bad enough.

Legislative dithering also dealt a blow to government transparency. We suspect hardly any of the 147 state lawmakers actually read the budget in the few hours they had before casting their votes. Only a dozen or so legislators really know what’s contained in those several hundred pages.

Doing such imperative work at the 11th hour precluded any opportunity for the public to understand the most important policy bill enacted by a Legislature, let alone comment on it.

Let’s also be fair. It’s not a bad budget. The agreement reached Thursday on spending $33.54 billion during the next two years hits most of the right notes.

Lawmakers increased funding to higher education by 12 percent overall ($180 million), allowing colleges and universities to hold resident undergraduate tuition increases at zero. The final version of the budget eliminated the Senate’s harmful suggestion to impose a surcharge on international students.

Higher education gets enough money to begin recovering from some of the cuts made during the recession. For example, lawmakers provided the University of Washington with $8.9 million in new and much-needed engineering and computer science funding, and $5.7 million to Washington State University.

State Superintendent Randy Dorn will be less enthusiastic about the $1.03 billion of additional funding for K-12 schools. In Dorn’s view, that doesn’t meet the state Supreme Court’s mandate to fully fund basic education. Dorn considered $1.4 billion the minimum required from legislators to convince the court they were making significant progress toward its constitutional mandate.

Still, the budget provides some increased funds to reduce early elementary class size, expand all-day kindergarten, materials, supplies and operating costs (MSOC) and covers the shortfall in public transportation. Those are four areas identified by the court, but which were estimated to cost more than $3 billion in the biennium.

We hope the Legislature now tackles a transportation revenue package that addresses the preservation and maintenance of our deteriorating roads and bridges — focusing on the Interstate 5 corridor — and includes funding for the key Columbia River Crossing.

There’s never enough money to please everyone, at any level of government. So it’s a reality that nobody will be 100 percent happy with this budget, but nearly everyone is unhappy with the process.