Happy New Year, maybe. Hungry New Year, probably.
Yet again, the South Sound and the state face 12 grim months of hard times, hard choices and tough sacrifices. Even if the recovery does gain more traction, it won't feel like a recovery anytime soon. Not for most of us.
Economic misery does instill one Spartan virtue: It forces families, communities and governments to search their priorities, cling to the essentials and let go of the rest. What emerges when good times return can be better than what was lost.
This agenda is our own exercise in triage. Each year, The News Tribune's editorial board identifies fundamental objectives we believe will strengthen the region and its communities. Here are those priorities:
Save the safety net
Decent societies are defined by how they treat those who can't fend for themselves. Relentless shortfalls in state revenues threaten deep cuts to programs that support endangered children, the disabled and the mentally ill, and working families who cannot afford health insurance.
Lawmakers must find ways this winter to preserve the social safety net even as they're forced to tighten it.
Private organizations, agencies and charities – nonprofits, churches, youth groups, etc. – cannot replace state welfare services, but they can relieve an immense amount of misery with enough resources and volunteers. The economic downturn calls for an ethic of citizenship that encompasses a commitment to care for the less fortunate.
Lead in Olympia
For the Legislature, this is a time for political courage and creativity.
On the state level, protection of education and the safety net depends on lawmakers' willingness to buck demanding constituencies – which include public unions, given the Democrats' control of the Legislature. Vital services must override the interests of pressure groups and campaign supporters.
Lawmakers must find ways to root out more wasteful spending on health care. The hotly disputed cutbacks in funding for Medicaid emergency room visits are an example of the triage needed to preserve more treatment for more people.
Barring some miracle, it will take new revenue to protect core human services, education and public safety. Additional taxes of some kind look necessary. Without more money, for example, school districts with relatively poor tax bases – such as Tacoma, Puyallup, Clover Park and University Place – could lose many millions of dollars in state levy equalization funding.
It will take leadership and courage to make this case to the voters.
Cut government overhead
Local government, too, faces a brutal trade-off between employee compensation and public services.
The City of Tacoma has become a horror story. After handing out generous raises and fat benefits for years, it has suddenly found itself deep in the hole now that the wishful thinking in its current budget has collided with hard reality.
City officials are looking at staggering cuts – as many as 100 positions – in Tacoma's police and fire departments. Public safety could be gravely compromised, in large measure because of the city's high overhead costs.
Much of the problem – in Tacoma and elsewhere – stems from calibrating public payrolls to a "market" that consists of comparisons with the supersized public payrolls of other cities. In the real economy, market compensation is based on competition for jobs and workers, in both the public and private sectors.
Like businesses, governments should offer the pay and benefits needed to hire talented people and keep them from leaving. But for many positions, that's lower than compensation indexed to other cities' artificially high pay scales. If comparisons are perpetuated as the basis for pay and benefits, local governments will continue to sacrifice public services on the altar of employee compensation.
Invest in lifelong education
Washingtonians have seen their access to higher education sharply curtailed over the last three years. Community colleges – the workhorses of workforce development – have had their legislative support cut by a third. The Legislature has cut appropriations for four-year schools by as much as half; students are writing far bigger tuition checks but still having trouble getting into courses they need.
Protecting community college and university enrollments should be an overriding priority as the Legislature confronts the budget shortfall. If tuition is to be increased further, financial aid should be expanded commensurately.
Washington's public schools need healthy funding, including levy equalization, but they also need a new attitude at the top. The state's K-12 establishment fights reform. It has resisted efforts to hold schools and teachers accountable for their performance; it has sabotaged efforts to give parents the option of charter schools, which are a common and often successful alternative in other states.
Washington failed pathetically in its attempt to win some of the federal Race to the Top money the Obama administration earmarked for reform-minded states. The state's public school system needs better leadership as least as much as it needs more money.
Fix transportation chokepoints
The economy has left Washington in a poor position to address additional long-term transportation needs, but the Legislature should at least be pursuing solutions to one of the state's worst congestion points: the mess on Interstate 5 between Lakewood and the state capital.
With Joint Base Lewis-McChord poised to add thousands of soldiers, the bottleneck is only going to get tighter. Relieving it will require federal as well as state transportation money. Members of Congress should ensure that JBLM's growing pains aren't outsourced to commuters.
Mass transit and new carpool lanes would alleviate the jams. Extending Sounder's commuter rail service is one option the region's leaders should be exploring.
Veterans now leaving the military face the toughest job market since the Great Depression; among the youngest of them, the rate of unemployment is twice that of their nonveteran peers. National Guard and reservists who would have held civilian jobs in peacetime now often find themselves without employment after multiple overseas deployments.
The military and military communities like ours must not only care for returning veterans' physical and emotional needs, we must also ensure that service to country doesn't come at the expense of the ability to support a family. For most discharged veterans, the best form of assistance is a job.
Foster open government
Ensuring that government business happens in the open is key to protecting and improving the public welfare. Public agencies that hide their business and decision-making are prone to corruption and less likely to be responsive to community concerns.
The Legislature has been remiss in not making lawmakers subject to the same disclosure rules that govern their local government counterparts. Also overdue: The closure of a loophole that allows public agencies to keep records secret by defining them as confidential legal work.
State officials must push back against any erosion of the voters' ability to make informed decisions, a foundation of democratic self-government.