Sunday, November 17, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The first steps toward living within our means

The impossible task of cutting $2 billion from state spending has been made possible. A radical exercise inside the state's Office of Financial Management shows how a no-new-taxes budget might be made to work. Gov. Gary Locke is right to embrace the new process and should keep on pushing it.

The usual, political way to handle a projected deficit is to take last year's budget and cut. It is like taking last year's family car and reducing its weight with a blowtorch and shears. But cutting $2 billion from this vehicle does not make it a compact; it makes it a wreck. What is wanted is a budget designed from the ground up.

Conceptually, that is what OFM has done. It took top people from the Locke administration and from the private sector and had them list the 10 top goals for state government — stronger achievement from students in school, higher productivity of workers, healthier citizens, the condition of vulnerable persons, the safety of people and property, and so on. This was the shopping list. Then the OFM teams started "buying" the most valuable things first until the money was all spent.

They "spent" more on early-childhood education but less — presumably hundreds of millions less — on reducing class sizes. They bought more slots in colleges but 2,000 fewer in prisons and parole programs. They bought a smaller Basic Health Plan, presumably by slimming the benefits or disenrolling childless adults. They had not funded many advocacy groups and commissions or the licensing and regulation of some of the professions.

Exactly what they recommended is not revealed. Locke is looking it over, and may make some changes. He has to present his budget — balanced, and with no new taxes — on Dec. 17.

He said he will do this straight, and he must. The budget will be painful; it cannot be ridiculous. The no-new-tax budget has to be made as palatable and as smart a choice as possible — because we might have to live with it.

Of course, legislators will write their own balanced budget. Locke hinted that he might accept "gambling or sin taxes or things like that." But sin revenue would add little to the package he offers. The taxes that would make a big difference toward bridging the $2-billion chasm are precisely those that would be too heavy to bear. There is a recession on, and judging from the recent election, there is also a strong resistance to tax increases.

People keep saying that government should spend wisely what it already has. That is what Locke now promises to do. We await the details.


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