What do Washington, D.C., and Washington state have in common?
Deficits. Big ones. But there the fiscal similarities end. Presidents can run deficits and governors cannot.
The governor has promised no new taxes – she’s been clear about that both during and after her re-election. So if taxes aren’t going to be raised and the economy isn’t expected to soon grow and generate more money for the treasury, how do you reduce deficits?
You must cut expenditures. In the next two years (we have a biennial budget), the state expects to receive close to $6 billion less than it expected to spend and that deficit is expected to grow. Chris Gregoire’s newly proposed budget is a good start, but she still needs to find another $2 billion in savings by next spring.
Here’s who can help her: former legislators.
More than 500 men and women have served in the Legislature since 1990. Some served a short time before losing bids for re-election or higher office. Some left Olympia for other elective offices or administrative posts in government. Some are now lobbyists. A few joined the judiciary and sit on the bench.
But some simply retired. They have no incumbency to defend, no personal ambitions at stake, no clients to serve, no job to protect. What some do have is detailed knowledge about the state budge process and where fat has been stored on sacred cows. They know which of the hundreds of state boards and commissions are vital and which are redundant, unnecessary or just a nuisance. They know where money can be saved by looking under line items that might otherwise escape scrutiny, like furnishings and equipment and accounts receivable. Or how the government can get the same thing done for less money. Every major corporation in the 1990s that is still a major corporation today melted its layers of management in the last 15 years. This has not happened yet in state government because there has always been money to subsidize or even grow these bureaucratic fiefdoms. And these retired lawmakers know it.
They can even spotlight waste in areas like education, corrections and the staff of the Legislature itself.
The governor should select eight such retired lawmakers – four Democrats, four Republicans – and give them 75 days to present her with a streamlined series of recommendations to cut another $2 billion from the budget. They could get a fast start by asking policy organizations on the right, left and in-between where they would eliminate inefficiency. They could also bring their own budget cutting ideas to the table. Staffing assistance (four aides, one for every two members) could be provided by the governor’s budget office. But the panel of retired lawmakers would deliberate only among themselves.
They have the knowledge, the stature and the time to propose serious reform of the status quo, which is what we obviously need. Their bipartisan makeup will help battle the partisan or ideological log jams that are already being erected to block meaningful reforms from taking place. (The governor expects this resistance, as was apparent from her State of the State Inaugural Address last week).
It is not only Washington, D.C., that much change, but Olympia as well. What’s being called a fiscal crisis might in fact be an opportunity to get a leaner, more accountable state government. And better government can also be a less expensive government.