Time do deal with the budget

April 26, 2009.

That is the last day of the Legislature under the state Constitution. That’s less than one month away. Lawmakers still have yet to face the $8 billion deficit that we face.

$8 billion; fewer than 30 days. You do the math.

To date, the Legislature has busied itself with – well, not much. Yes, legislators have been passed bills. However, the biggest challenge remains: What to do about the deficit.

In truth, this is how it is in most years. Financial predictions trickle out over the early days of the Legislature, giving lawmakers a sense of how much money may, or may not, be available to sustain past programs or start new ones. And, most years, this works – sort of – though there’s hardly any talk about spending less. It is always a question of how much more do we have to spend.

Not this time. And that’s the problem.

Not surprisingly, no one in Olympia wants to be on record as saying some program should be trimmed – or cut entirely. You don’t make friends – or get re-elected that way. Nevertheless, that is the issue – and, really, the only one – that lawmakers face. What has to be cut?

Legislators have toyed with the budget issue. Some have proposed higher “sin” taxes. It sounds good and even raises a few bucks here and there. There is also the idea of more “fees” for some services. Lord forbid that someone equate this with an actual tax – which, of course, it is.

However, this is merely nibbling around the edges. The big bites into the budget are yet to come – and most legislators, Republicans and Democrats, will find them unappetizing. Still, that is about all that is going to be on the menu.

What is interesting in all of this is that legislators are private citizens. By and large, those in the House and Senate do not hold government jobs. They live and work in the private sector, where the economy has been hammering everyone relentlessly. Why, then, don’t they understand that this also must be the case in government.

Some – Democratic Senate leader Lisa Brown, for example – say the solution is a tax increase. The idea seems to be that those who have something – regardless of how much – should pay extra to those who have less.

In a normal world, this might hold true. In fact, that is how we mostly get tax increases. We give up some of what we have to help others.

But we are not in a normal world right now. Everyone, even those mostly without, are going to have to do with even less.

That is happening daily in the private sector. A recent news story tells how companies, hit again with medical cost increases, are passing them on to employees, even though they just did the same things mere months ago. Few workers in the private sector are seeing a wage increase. In fact, some are facing wage reductions – just to keep their jobs. The average worker wasn’t that flush before. He or she certainly isn’t now.

Are they better off than those on the bottom rung? Sure. Is there any guarantee they will not slip to that spot themselves? No.

This state, and this country, face a financial situation unlike most have ever seen. Those who faced the great Depression are mostly gone. This is new, and scary, times for the rest of us.

We will pull out of this recession (I'm reluctant to use the “D” word), but it will take time – and pain. Our parents and grandparents overcame worse times. They did it by making do with less, often a lot less.

Now, we have to, too. The Legislature needs to acknowledge and accept this and get to the task of trimming and cutting our state budget until the outgo matches the income.

There is no magic here, just hard decisions.