Sound Off:Legislature faces challenges

  • Saturday, January 20, 2007 8:00pm
  • Opinion

In Washington, the start of the new year also brings on the beginning of a new legislative session in Olympia. This year’s session began Jan. 8 and is scheduled to end in 105 days. Each legislative session presents new challenges and new opportunities — and some continuing challenges from previous years that have either gone unaddressed or need further attention.

This year I see several opportunities and challenges ahead – the most pressing issue being the state operating budget. We’re entering the 2007 session with a budget surplus of nearly $2 billion in the state treasury. Some people would say that’s a good thing. However, it also presents some challenges.

First, economists agree this surplus is largely one-time money. It’s sizable now because our economy is good. However, when the economy dips, so will incoming revenues to the state. We cannot rely on an endless stream of surplus revenue in the future. Yet with such a large surplus, there’s enormous pressure to spend most of it on new, costly ongoing programs. Some interest groups say they’ve waited long enough. Now that the state has additional money, they say it’s time to pay up.

The challenge for lawmakers will be to resist the pressure to spend every dime — and to especially resist spending the one-time surplus on continuing programs that will require funding into the future. If the Legislature gives in to this temptation, it could be very costly for taxpayers when the economy dips and the surplus shrinks to a deficit.

As a member of the House Appropriations Committee which writes the budget, I also view my role as an opportunity to present a voice of reason on this committee. I will be introducing legislation to keep the budget in check by requiring sunset reviews on every new program. The reviews would require lawmakers to justify spending on new, ongoing programs, and ensure those programs are delivering results. We owe it to the hard-working taxpayers of this state and the 10th District to be planning for the future with a responsible, sustainable budget — not spending in the moment.

The surplus also gives us an opportunity that is long overdue — establishing a constitutionally-protected rainy-day fund that would put money away for hard economic times. I’m encouraged that the governor now agrees with the wisdom of this plan. The challenge will be to ensure that it is a true savings account – not one that shifts money into targeted spending accounts such as the Legislature did when it created such reserve accounts last year.

The surplus also provides the Legislature with the opportunity to finally pay down the state’s pension liability. The state is supposed to pay into the pension system every year. However, in difficult years, it has skipped payments on what has become a $4 billion unfunded liability.

Pensions are like mortgages. If you fail to pay your mortgage, it isn’t long until the balance becomes so high that it’s nearly impossible to catch up. That’s where we find ourselves with the state pension system. The surplus gives us an opportunity to catch up and pay down this debt. If we don’t, it could cost taxpayers millions more in the future. The challenge this session will be to make this a priority and finally pay this bill. As a member of the Select Committee on Pension Policy, I will again introduce legislation this year to create a reasonable payment schedule that will address our pension liability and save taxpayer dollars.

This session, I’m also hoping we have the opportunity to lower the costs of healthcare. This issue is one of the greatest challenges faced by our state. Yet, instead of providing meaningful cost reduction solutions, the push continues for failed government-run healthcare policies of the past — none of which solve the need for affordable, consumer-driven healthcare. Let’s use this session as an opportunity to address these challenges.

The 2007 session also presents some unique opportunities for the 10th District. It will be important for the Legislature to address eminent domain issues this session. Those issues directly affect economic development throughout the local area. As ranking member of the House Community, Economic Development and Trade Committee, I’m looking forward to this debate and finding solutions that will protect personal property rights.

One of our greatest challenges in the 10th District is striking a balance between the ability to use our lands for farming and economic growth while protecting our sensitive environmental areas. The district is very diverse, from our beaches, timberland, and small farms in Island County to our larger farms and economic development in Skagit and Snohomish counties. One size does not fit all. Yet, that’s how our growth management and critical areas ordinances are applied. We need to protect our farmers’ ability to farm while preserving the environmental areas which provide the unique quality of life we enjoy in the district.

Finally, I’d like to use this opportunity to invite your comments. What are the challenges you see that face our local communities? Some of the best ideas for legislation come directly from you — the citizens. Please contact my office at 360-786-7914; toll-free at 1-800-562-6000, or via e-mail at bailey.barbara@leg.wa.gov.

Together, let’s use the 2007 legislative session as an opportunity to solve the challenges we face both in Washington and the 10th District.

Rep. Barbara Bailey, R-Oak Harbor, is beginning her third term serving the 10th District.

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