Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget office has robbed Republicans of a key piece of information they use to beat up on the governor. The Office of Financial Management (OFM) has stopped producing six-year budget outlooks. Instead, it's only producing four-year forecasts. These are one page charts that show whether the state is facing a budget surplus or deficit in future years - based on spending and revenues.
Sen, Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, believes the six-year outlook would show a roughly $2 billion dollar shortfall in the 2011-13 biennium.
That would give the GOP added ammunition to say Gregoire has overspent during her first term and is driving the state back into the deep red. Republicans instead are left to use OFM's four-year projection, which shows the state will face a $600 million deficit in the 2009-11 budget cycle - not including the new constitutionally protected Rainy Day Fund.
Zarelli calls it "irritating" but isn't willing to accuse the governor's office of playing election year politics. That's probably because Gregoire's budget director, Victor Moore, used to work for the Legislature and is respected on both sides of the aisle.
For his part, Moore says he made the decision last year to halt the longstanding practice of doing six-year-outlooks because the numbers were purely speculative. "I'm not going to calculate the number because I don't think it's going to help us in terms of long term planning because it's so unreliable."
Moore gets some backing from Scott Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers in Washington, D.C. Pattison says states are all over the map when it comes to budget projections – some don't do them at all, others do long-term outlooks. And he notes the federal government produces 10-year outlooks. But Pattison observes: "The accuracy obviously dramatically declines, particularly after four or five years."
Zarelli counters that it might be difficult to project revenues, but it's easy to calculate spending obligations. And he thinks a six-year forecast - accurate or not - helps lawmakers and the public see how spending decisions today might impact the budgets of tomorrow. Zarelli says he's now putting pressure on the Senate Ways and Means Committee staff to fill the gap left by OFM and produce their own six-year outlook.