Wednesday, January 1, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Hope for 2003

Dicey is how you could describe the prospects for this new year.

You can find cause for optimism, but you have to lift the edges of the gloom that has shrouded our regional and national economies. You also have to see opportunities in the challenges that face our nation as we struggle to regain the sense of security we lost in the collapse of two tall buildings 15 months ago.

2002 was a rough one for the nation and particularly the Northwest. Layoffs in the Puget Sound region were counted in the tens of thousands. For several months, Washington was neck and neck with Alaska and Oregon for the dubious honor of having the nation's highest unemployment rate. The governor expects our state to remain in an economic slump through 2003.

While things aren't quite that drastic as in Oregon where school years are being shortened, Washington lawmakers face a daunting, $2.5 billion budget deficit when they convene on Jan. 13. Gov. Gary Locke's proposed no-tax-increase approach promises pain for many, including more layoffs and cutbacks of services such as Medicaid.

Nevertheless, there are opportunities in this adversity.

Faced with the budget crisis and voters' obvious disgruntlement, lawmakers and other Washington officials have an opportunity to remake state government. Now's the time to fix its foibles, play up its strengths, show voters the state can do much with less and put it on firmer ground for the future. Locke started from zero with his priorities-of-government exercise and built a budget proposal that is a good starting point.

Perhaps the Legislature will be able to find ways to stimulate the economy, maybe by really doing something to improve what is considered an unfriendly business climate. We need business starts and expansions to get people back to work. Maybe Congress can find ways to stimulate the economy without putting the nation back on a soaring national debt track.

Internationally, President Bush last week decided to send 25,000 troops to the Persian Gulf region in preparation for a possible war with Iraq. And North Korea is vying for the administration's attention with its renewed plans to build nuclear weapons, although Secretary of State Colin Powell suggests diplomatic and economic pressures will stop the expansion.

Careful diplomacy might well avert a war with Iraq. While the Bush administration seems intent on regime change, Arab leaders reportedly are talking about an exit strategy for Saddam Hussein, an alternative to war that might meet U.S. requirements.

In either case, if the U.S. is successful in thwarting Iraq's campaign to build weapons of mass destruction, so much the better. Under Saddam Hussein's leadership, Iraq has continued to be a wild card in an unstable region and a sponsor of the terrorism that has changed the texture of American life.

The new year might be rough, but there is opportunity in the challenges ahead. Shrewd strategies carefully executed could put us on firmer ground a year from now.


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