Olympic bombs

A budget crisis greets the 2001 Legislature.

IT WAS PRETTY MUCH business as usual in Olympia Monday. At the Capitol, both houses of the Legislature were gaveled to order for their first session of 2001. Over at the governor's office, Gary Locke was getting set to take the oath for a second term. Two new Supreme Court judges were being sworn in at the Temple of Justice. And over at the secretary of state's office, Tim Eyman was waiting when the doors opened to file his latest direct-democracy bombshell.

At a forum for the capital press corps last Thursday, the Associated Press' Dave Ammons introduced Eyman as Washington state's "foremost practitioner of the art and science of the initiative." In his own opening remarks, Eyman tried hard to shrug off the dignified mantle, saying that legislators also invited to take part in the forum had threatened a boycott if the AP insisted on "bringing in the riffraff" to kick off their forum.

But even Eyman seemed a little dazed by the consideration given him. Categorized just a year or so ago as a spoiler and rabble-rouser, the young Mukilteo activist now finds himself approaching the status of a one-man fourth branch of government, with the three traditional governmental powers forced to take into account his every action. Though barely mentioned by the legislative leaders who took the stage following his appearance, Eyman and Eymanism haunted every word of the morning's proceedings.

"The initiative process exists for the people to step in when the politicians fail," proclaims Eyman's aptly named Web site, Permanent Offense. Even dedicated and public-spirited legislative veterans admit that over the past decade, failure—of foresight, leadership, and plain courage—has increasingly left state government less able to deal with an unprecedented accumulation of financial and administrative challenges. "We created Eyman," one such veteran said. "If we'd been doing what we should have been doing, nobody would ever have heard of him."

Before the voters passed Eyman's notorious "$30 car tabs," Initiative 695, in November 1999, partisan squabbling over carving up the biennial state budget dominated legislative sessions to the near exclusion of any discussion of policy or planning for the future. Combined with an earlier initiative that capped state government's spending, I-695 has blown so big a hole in state finances that even some extreme advocates of keeping government in check are beginning to shiver as the consequences emerge.

Governor Locke, fresh from a reelection landslide, is sticking his usually well-protected neck out a little with his proposed $23 billion budget for 2001- 2003. That's $2 billion over the last biennial budget and over $825 million out of balance without contributions from two sources guaranteed to raise conservative hackles in both parties: spending down the state's $1 billion rainy-day reserve by half and jacking up the voter-mandated spending cap to cover the rest.

The Legislature could give the gov all he wants from the reserve fund but probably won't. Spokane Senator James West wasn't voicing just Republican concerns at the forum when he wryly called spending down the state reserves for nonemergency operations (as the Legislature did in 1979 and 1993) "one of key indicators for an economic downturn in this state."

OVERALL, THE FISCAL situation looks dire. To bring his budget into balance, the governor is also asking the Legislature to cut over a quarter-billion from current programs, most of them in social and health services, while the estimated cost of health insurance for state employees is rising monthly. Soaring energy costs are already making nonsense of estimates finalized in mid-December.

The only way the Legislature survived the last budget bloodbath was through windfall income: most notably, the state's share of the boodle from the tobacco settlement. Nobody's expecting a windfall this time.

Maybe the sheer enormity of the task facing them has jolted legislators into an awareness that if they fiddle away the first three months of the session in partisan sniping, they may still be working on the budget in August. The most noticeable evidence for a new realism is the near- bipartisan seriousness with which leaders of both parties are approaching the state's transportation crisis.

For once, the report of a gubernatorial "blue-ribbon commission" appears not dead in the water upon submission. That's remarkable, considering that the commission's report calls for investing an additional $100 billion in transportation over the next 20 years and that Locke suggests spending nearly $10 billion of that on specific programs in the next six. Instead of polarized huffing and puffing, Senate and House leaders of both parties agreed (some through gritted teeth) that the transportation issue can no longer be ignored.

Of course, it was easier for them to agree knowing that they already have the governor's wholehearted support for submitting whatever transportation package they mutually devise to the voters this November. This may not suggest new resolve and courage on the part of both branches of government, but at least it indicates a new awareness that "consent of the governed" is not just a pious formula.

Not that the governing class has to like it. Asked Thursday what might happen should voters not approve additional gasoline and other taxes to finance any new transportation investment, Locke replied, with unusual bluntness even for a pol just reelected by a landslide: "Then they will just have to live with the consequences."

 
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