State caught in test of political power

June 18, 2013 

After nearly six months of political posturing and not much genuine negotiating, the state Legislature has failed to pass a biennium budget. If partisan gamesmanship prevents budget agreement in the next 12 days, by midnight June 30, government agencies will begin shutting down and temporarily laying off state workers.

Some lawmakers insist a government shutdown won’t occur, while others aren’t so sure. Either way, Thurston County businesses and residents lose in this dangerous and unnecessary test of political power.

The slow pace of legislative progress this year has caused uncertainty among the nearly 30,000 general government, K-12 and higher education employees in Thurston County. As stage agencies begin making contingency plans for layoffs in the event of a shutdown, anxiety builds among government employees. That may cool down what was starting to look like a robust South Sound economic recovery.

Our region has taken a disproportionate share of state government shrinkage because of our high concentration of public sector workers. State employees have had no across-the-board salary increases in seven out of the past 11 years, including one 3 percent reduction.

We’re an area already hard hit by the federal government sequester that has trimmed 20 percent from the paychecks of Joint Base Lewis-McChord civilian workers. The City of Lacey is suffering the most because more than 25 percent of its population has a direct military connection.

Needless to say, Thurston County is more sensitive to the threat of a government shutdown than other regions of the state. Sitting in the perfect storm of austerity measures between JBLM and the state capital, this new uncertainty over a fiscal catastrophe will have a negative impact on local businesses.

It’s particularly galling that some state senators seem willing to hold the state budget hostage over a few individual bills that aren’t particularly pressing. It’s gratuitous leverage, for example, when Republican Sen. Don Benton continues to block budget progress over his bill to benefit the payday lending industry, which significantly contributed to his re-election campaign.

That bill, and the Senate’s other policy measures still on the table can wait until the next regular legislative session. It’s only six months away, after all. Legislators shouldn’t waste time on such bills now, with our state poised to fall over a fiscal cliff in a matter of days.

If the Legislature doesn’t agree on a spending plan by Friday, school districts around the state will miss out on $45 million earmarked for nutritional and special education programs. And it gets worse from there.

Legislators need to focus on passing both operating and capital budgets. They also should pass a transportation package that heavily focuses on the preservation and maintenance of our existing roads and bridges.

Then lawmakers should go home and justify their three-session debacle to voters.

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