Andy Hill and Joe Fain: Constitutional amendment a must for balancing state budget

Apr 28, 2016

This guest column was published in the Seattle Times, April 28, 2016.

By Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, and Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond

The Legislature spent months developing a state-budget update that was projected to balance for the current spending cycle as well as the next. We did so because thinking long term puts Washington in a better position to address and enhance our priorities next year when we write a new budget. Also, it’s required by law.

But last week, well after more than 70 percent of lawmakers endorsed a plan, Gov. Jay Inslee used a few strokes of his veto pen to create a more than $200 million deficit in the state’s four-year outlook that could put key state programs at risk.

Why look out into the future? The future of education, health care and public safety in Washington depends on keeping our fiscal house in order.

Budgeting requires difficult decisions and a commitment to governing. In 2012, a bipartisan coalition of senators instituted an important fiscal reform: the four-year balanced-budget law. Washington is the first state with this check on budget gimmicks, our greatest defense against self-inflicted financial chaos.

Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn

Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn

The state budget covers two years at a time, so why make budget writers look ahead further? It’s because the decade preceding 2013 often saw legislators propose or make spending choices that would balloon in the next budget cycle.

For instance, that well-intentioned spending program that’s set to begin near the end of the two-year budget might only cost $1 million to fund now. But to keep it going in the future, that same program costs next year’s budget more than twice as much. Lobbyists for both social services and business interests use tricks like this to get new programs or targeted tax relief into law on the cheap, knowing the real costs are hidden until later.

A far more troubling example would delay state payments to school districts from one fiscal year to the next. It sounds practical: push a June 30 payment to July 1, when the new cycle starts and, voilà, the payment no longer counts against the current budget, artificially balancing it, and school districts see no interruption in state-provided services. Yet such deferments create a disaster in the next budget cycle because now the state must double up: the regularly scheduled payment plus a catch-up payment. That is the fastest way to dig a budget hole that the state may not escape for years. No wonder Democratic state Treasurer Jim McIntire dubbed it a “felony gimmick.”

Thankfully, our state can’t print money like the federal government. When revenue and expenses don’t match, the typical solutions are to reduce spending through cuts or efficiencies, raise taxes, or some combination of both. These are often bitter pills, but should remain lawmakers’ only options. The four-year balanced budget is working to effectively limit the Legislature to those choices.

It’s no coincidence that Washington families and employers have seen four years of stable tax rates since the balanced-budget requirement took effect, even as lawmakers made record investments in education. Still, this hasn’t stopped some who voted for the law from now criticizing it as “voodoo budgeting.” Opponents have repeatedly tried legal maneuvers and gimmicks to avoid or weaken this requirement to enable spending increases that far exceed our ability to pay.

These attempts were front-and-center during budget negotiations in Olympia that forced legislators into overtime for the sixth time in seven years. Some believe they reflect an intentional strategy to create deep and permanent budget deficits as a way to build public support for large tax increases.

That’s why we will push the next Legislature to ask voters to weigh in on this common-sense approach. The constitutional amendment we propose, requiring the state budget to balance across four years, would let Washington voters make this effective check on irresponsible budgeting permanent and halt attempts to undermine it.

Our plan would not restrict spending nor would it prevent important new programs that could require higher taxes. It simply would prevent politicians from promising things for free, especially in election years, while creating a balance-sheet crisis for future lawmakers to address. We also seek to close a loophole that has allowed the current governor to annually propose a budget that doesn’t balance and prevent the executive from using his or her veto authority to create an unbalanced budget.

For decades, we’ve seen short-term decisions put a long-term squeeze on public education and other state obligations. By strengthening reforms like the four-year balanced-budget requirement, Washingtonians could receive the government services they depend on without the boom-and-bust decisions by state officials that have regularly placed those services in jeopardy.

Republican State Sen. Joe Fain, of Auburn, is the majority floor leader and Sen. Andy Hill, of Redmond, has served as chief budget writer in the Senate since 2013.