July almost arrived before the Washington Legislature’s budget, in large part because lawmakers waited to see if the June revenue forecast would enable a deal that would satisfy tax-averse Republicans and cuts-averse Democrats. The wait paid off, and lawmakers approved a budget that avoided a possible state government shutdown.
The state-level developments provided the most visible proof of an improving revenue picture for federal, state and local governments, whose bottom lines were stretched by the long and deep national economic recession that started in 2007. Government workers were buffered compared to their private-sector counterparts, but not totally. The Yakima Herald-Republic reported last spring that state workers in Yakima County began feeling the pinch of layoffs in 2009, and local governments the following year.
At the end of 2011, the number of government jobs in Yakima County had dropped by 300, or 1.8 percent, from their 2009 peak of just over 17,000. By necessity, the governments had to invent ways to find efficiencies among their employees, whether through restructuring jobs or bringing in new technology.
Governments now are seeing an improved revenue picture. Employees are getting long-delayed pay and benefit increases, and some governments have started hiring again. But while the recession may be passing, the need for fiscal prudence hasn’t.
As good times return, so will the urge to expand employee benefits and the role of governments. Instead, governments would be prudent to bolster their reserves or identify core services that need bolstering, such as the city of Yakima is doing in designating funds for street work.
And it’s not just the fear of the next downturn that should prompt governments to continue wringing efficiencies from their operations. These actions not only improve governments’ function, they also bolster lawmakers’ credibility when they decide to ask voters for more revenue. A skeptical electorate can be persuaded to support funding initiatives if an entity makes a persuasive case, and a government that proves it is thrifty and efficient will make a stronger case.
The improved revenue offers more breathing room, but we can’t breathe easy just yet.
• Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Sharon J. Prill, Bob Crider, Frank Purdy and Karen Troianello.