Rather daringly, The Seattle Times' editorial page has not only jumped on board the bandwagon for deep cuts in the state budget, prompted by shrinking tax receipts; it is also naming names of programs to be cut back. Its list totals $4 billion in cuts over the next two years.
It's a brutal list, mostly temporary pay cuts to state employees and teachers. For instance, it would roll back the Initiative 728 money, passed to reduce classroom size and costing nearly $500 million a year; such a suspension of the initiative took place in 2003. Savings of almost as much would come from not granting pay and benefit increases for state workers, schools, and colleges. Skip payments to the state pension fund; extend the state hiring freeze; skip contributions to the Life Sciences Discovery Fund — it begins to add up.
The philosophy in this recommendation, as with recently announced cuts in King County and Seattle budgets, is to share the pain and defer obligations, but to spare the programs. Forgo pay increases, pay for things (like pensions) later, shift full time workers to four-day workers, stop expanding programs — but don't eliminate any. Then, when the good times roll again, you can resume spending and reward the state workers who sacrificed during the downturn.
There is another way, one that requires much more political courage: eliminate (or merge) some programs that don't work well. Instead of sharing all the misery and demoralizing nearly everyone, sunset some whole programs and departments that are not working well. But this approach, which the private sector is more likely to follow, risks having all the other programs rally around the intended victim, lest they also get on the list. Ask any university that has tried to eliminate just one weak department — and confronted near-revolutionary resistance. The only way to do it is with some political cover, usually a blue-ribbon panel to recommend the cuts along some rational set of priorities; and that takes time to put together. The other way is to have a political leader of Giuliani-level confidence and arrogance, with a lot of reformers behind the mayor or governor.
Examples? Some that come to mind (not necessarily good ideas, but good illustrations) are: combine some departments such as Seattle Center and the Parks Department; eliminate the Department of Neighborhoods; close redundant fire stations; dramatically scale back the office of the state Superintendent of Public Instruction; close the UW Bothell campus; sell off surplus land; privatize some services such as recreation centers; get King County out of the passenger ferry business; close small schools.
Obama's new chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, has been saying that when a crisis gets big enough, there is a rare opportunity for bipartisan, long-term fixes. Quite true, and we certainly have a crisis of sufficient size. So far, however, nobody locally seems to be sensing this opportunity. (It was one of the biggest missed opportunities of the Dino Rossi campaign, which got cold feet about specific cuts.) Given the hold that state and local employees have over the officeholders, I'd be amazed if we actually do much seizing (as opposed to deferring).
Want to help? Comment below on programs that you would eliminate or dramatically change. (Including this writer, of course!)
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