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Guest Editorial

Legislature gets busted for playing Three Card Monte with taxpayer dollars

BY SEN. JOE ZARELLI

If you've ever been to a Seattle Mariners baseball game, you know at some point between innings, you will have the opportunity to try your luck at a modern, big screen version of Three Card Monte.

This new, fun version is where a baseball is placed under one of three baseball hats, which then shuffle, dance and spin all in an effort to confuse the viewers. In the end, you get to choose hat number one, two or three.

It's harmless and it's all in fun. Unless of course, the Legislature is playing this same Three Card Monte with your tax dollars. The ultimate goal of Three Card Monte, after all, is to take the money from the mark.

Last year, when Democrat budget writers raised taxes without a vote of the people and blew the lid off of the spending limits contained in voter-approved Initiative 601, many in the Legislature cried foul. There was a general feeling among many of us that at best, these fund shifts and shell games violated the spirit of I-601 and the trust of the voters, and at worst, opened the door to unlimited budget increases and were unconstitutional.

Last week, a Snohomish County Superior Court judge gave judicial weight to our concerns when he ruled that budget writers violated the provisions of I-601 and "exploited a loophole with the express purpose of artificially increasing the limit."

The loophole found and exploited by the Legislature was not small. In effect, by transferring money to separate accounts - not once, but twice - it gave the appearance of spending money and therefore artificially raised the spending lid for the budget and gave lawmakers the go-ahead to raise taxes without a vote of the people.

At the time, many of us in the Legislature objected to these disingenuous methods and made our points through floor speeches, press releases and position papers, wondering if anyone was listening.

Apparently, someone was. The Evergreen Freedom Foundation, the National Federation of Independent Business, the Building Industry Association of Washington, the Washington Farm Bureau and the Washington State Grange should all be commended for filing suit against the state and holding the Legislature accountable. Bravo!

Now, fast forward to this session. Democrat budget writers wanted to blow up the spending limit again, only this time, not because they wanted to raise taxes, but because they wanted to spend more of the state's $1.6 billion surplus than allowed under current law.

But, with a lawsuit pending, budget writers knew they couldn't engage in the same "back-of-the-budget" shenanigans as before. Instead, legislation was drafted so the "budget shifts" and "shell games" could actually be voted on.

This legislation had the very innocuous title of "An Act relating to state funding stabilization." However, this title did not give any indication that hidden within the bill was a provision to increase the spending limit under I-601. Instead of "funding stabilization," the bill's main purpose was to raise the current spending limit by over a billion dollars to accommodate more spending than permitted by law.

We challenged the title of this legislation on the Senate floor. The president of the Senate, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, a respected Democrat and former state senator, agreed with us and forced the bill's sponsors to change the title of the bill to more accurately reflect the legislation's intent. The new title was "An Act relating to funding state budgetary reserves including an adjustment to the state expenditure limit."

While I know there is no law that says legislation drafted by the Legislature has to make sense, I kept asking the question to anyone who would listen, "How can money be classified as 'reserve' and 'spent' at the same time?" Only in Olympia.

The judge's recent ruling places the legality of last year's tax increases - and the subsequent spending of the tax dollars collected - in doubt. Since nearly identical tactics were used in this year's record-breaking supplemental budget, the state's recently passed spending plan is also in doubt. Bad news for those who want to spend beyond the lawful limit. Good news for taxpayers.

But maybe the good news doesn't stop there.

I've said it before and I'll keep saying it: More often than not, the Legislature is its own worst enemy when spending taxpayer dollars. Budget writing is an add-on game, with everybody wanting a piece of the action.

I sponsored legislation this year to create the state's first constitutionally protected rainy day account. Placing strict limits on how and when the Legislature can spend surplus funds protects the taxpayer, no matter which party is in the majority.

While the legislation did not pass, I will continue to sponsor it each year and advocate on its behalf until it does.

I am hopeful that taxpayers will hold their elected officials accountable for the last two years of unabated spending and questionable budget shell games. Just as in Three Card Monte: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times? Shame on all of us.

Sen. Joe Zarelli (R-Ridgefield) is the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

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