President Obama's bipartisan commission to reduce the federal deficit, whose ideas are now starting to appear, is an idea that might well be adapted to Washington state. Here's how it might work and why we need it.
It's obvious that it is time for a candid and courageous confronting of the state's budget deficits, pension and other future liabilities, the need to fund education reform, the crisis in support of the University of Washington, huge unfunded needs in transportation, and tax reform. The piecemeal approach is full of incoherence, political influence (soda bottlers, for instance), timidity, and voter skepticism. Nor is it likely, though it is possible, that the Legislature and Gov. Gregoire can find the political cover and courage to do much more than temporize and cross fingers in the hopes that an economic recovery will bail them out.
My proposal would be to take a lot of the big issues at once, making the solutions reinforce each other, and creating enough common ground in the center to attract strong public support. It would draw from proposals from some other, more focused commissions, such as those on transportation and higher education.
The way these panels work is that a significant majority of the members (14 of 18 in the case of Obama's Deficit Commissison, which consists of 12 member from the House and Senate and six leading citizens) must approve the final package for forwarding to the Legislature. You can structure it where the whole package has to be voted up or down (as was done with military base closures); or you can submit the package, hoping that public support will keep it coherent during the legislative debate. The co-chairs are from the two parties; in the Obama case it is Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff under Bill Clinton and now president of the University of North Carolina, and former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson. The Obama panel has 10 Democrats and 8 Republicans, reflecting the balance in the Congress at the time.
One reason for doing this now (aside from the current crisis of huge shortfalls in the budget) is to try to get tax reform right, while some are feeling guilty about the smackdown of I-1098 and not wanting that whopping defeat to kill the chances for wiser tax reform for a generation. For whatever reason, I-1098 issued from the liberal-labor side of the citizenry and rebuffed suggestions from pro-tax reform people like former Gov. Dan Evans for protections against future increases and providing genuine relief from our too-high sales tax and too-foolish business and occupation tax.
The advantages of the commission are: public education on the real issues of the day (such as runaway pension plans) that are rarely debated in public; political cover for politicians who need to vote against some of their rabid constituents; an elaborate system of tradeoffs so that groups can swallow hard in some areas because of gains in others; and a blueprint for the next decade that can provide guidance to other politicians and some certainty for businesses considering investing in growth. It might well fail, but it could become the basis for debate for the next governor's race.
Timing is a vexing issue. Such a commission, if appointed now, could give the coming legislative session an excuse for inaction. Possibly it is better to float the idea as a Plan B in case the Legislature fails to address many of these issues? In a sense, there never would be a good time, but time is running out.
Finally, it would be interesting to make the whole exercise an example of the new kind of transparency and "crowd-sourcing" of ideas and reactions that new technology makes possible.
Footnote: Something along these lines was proposed by state Sen. Jim Kastama (D-Puyallup), with a more narrow focus on agency realignment and using a commission of public figures free from the interest groups to make some of the hard proposals. Kastama's proposal, as spelled out in this Seattle Times op-ed, was vetoed by the governor. It was replaced by what Kastama calls:
A 32-member advisory committee to the governor including many of the same interest groups that have been fiercely resistant to change. If it follows the course of similar "blue ribbon" commissions, prepare for a report that is void of the tough decisions and innovative solutions necessary to maximize government services while living within current revenues.