by Dino Rossi
What chance would a President Romney have of bringing the federal budget under control as he has promised? History suggests that he would be accused, at best, of throwing widows and orphans in the street, and more likely, killing people. Regardless of the makeup of Congress, the job of moving toward budget balance requires a public that starts out supportive and stays supportive through months of debate and wrangling.
From my experience at the state level, such sustained support can be
achieved. In 2003 the Senate Republicans in Washington State obtained
majority status by one vote. Democrats overwhelmingly controlled the state
house and Democrat Gary Locke was Governor. Washington State was facing the
largest dollar deficit in its history. Before the legislative session
started all discussions centered on what was going to be cut and how high
taxes would be raised.
I was in line to be chairman of the budget writing Senate Ways & Means
committee. Next to Governor this is the most powerful political position in
Washington State because any spending item over 50k has to be approved by
that committee chairman. However, I clearly was outnumbered in a political
sense because three of my own Republican caucus members were willing to
ditch party discipline and join the Democrats in raising taxes.
Before session starts in Olympia the Associated Press typically hosts a
forum where legislative leaders give a preview of the upcoming session. The
reporters were eager for my presentation because I was well known in our
State Capitol as a fiscally conservative businessman. I stood up and said
we are not going to raise taxes because it will harm the economy and put
people out of work but we are going to protect the most vulnerable in our
society. I said that I think about people in nursing homes, the mentally
ill and the developmentally disabled and there but for the grace of God go
you and I. We can be fiscally conservative and still have a social
Nobody thought what I said at the AP forum was possible. Even my
non-partisan Ways & Means staff tried to "talk sense into me". I reiterated
to everyone we were going to balance the biggest deficit in state history
without raising taxes and still protect the most vulnerable in society.
In the end my budget passed the Senate with four Senate democrats joining
all the republicans. It passed the Democrat controlled house and Governor
Locke signed it into law. To make my no tax increase budget work we had to
pass 51 statute changing bills and alter five voter-approved initiatives.
Two of the initiatives required a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to
alter. Don't forget I only had a shaky one-vote majority in the Senate to
In the end we did what I said we would do at the AP forum and I received the
defender of liberty award from the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation
for being the architect of the most fiscally conservative budget written in
modern Washington State history. I'm equally proud of the fact I received
the Senior Star Award from AARP and 6 different awards from the
developmentally disabled community for protecting their funding -- just like
I said I would.
What were the keys to success?
1. I didn't blame the Democrats for the Mess.
Everyone knew who was at fault for our fiscal mess. If I was going to
engage the Democrats to help me I couldn't rub their noses in the complete
disaster they had left me.
2. I drove around the state and met with moderate Democrats in their
hometowns and local diners and asked for their help.
I told them I wasn't going to raise taxes but I was going to protect the
most vulnerable. I didn't have any more money than anyone else to spend but
I wanted to know what was important to these officials.
3. At every step I defined what an "Olympia cut" was.
To illustrate, I told this story. My ten-year-old daughter comes to me and
says, daddy, I want a $100 per week allowance and I say, no, honey, I'll
give you $5 per week. She then runs around the neighborhood telling
everyone that I cut her budget by 95%. That's an Olympia cut. Government
agencies and advocates start with the number they fantasize about getting
and anything under that they and their constituencies call a cut. I won
this fight by constantly defining that version of a cut vs. the public's
common sense understanding of what constitutes a cut.
4. Find in the Democrats' budget a few emotional items to promote.
This part was the key and I took it straight of my Catholic Sunday Mass.
The Governor's proposed budget offered big cuts to people in nursing homes,
the mentally ill and the developmentally disabled. These are people who
can't help themselves and we need to be there to help. You can find a few
Obama proposed cuts (Obamacare's treatment of Medicare) and make a public
issue about saving whatever items you choose that a majority of the
population would agree with. If you use your megaphone to continually point
to some proposed cuts that you will avoid or areas that you will enhance,
people will know you care. That will give you more latitude with the public
when it comes to the larger pieces. This is where I received Democrat and
social service advocate support. Saving $150 million in cuts to the most
vulnerable, in addition to being just, allowed me to solve a $3.2 billion
budget deficit. I was willing to block traffic to protect the most needy,
and once I made my stand the Republicans and many Democrats got in line
right behind me.
5. Don't worry about re-election!!
It takes courage to seriously reduce government spending. A key to my
success was not caring if I got re-elected. It's very freeing and you can do
what you think is right and what you said you would do. The end result was
that the public saw caring, capable leadership and I became more popular; to
the point that I attracted the interest of President Bush, who asked me to
run for Governor.
6. Don't take all the credit.
I tried to make heroes out of all Republicans and Democrats who helped me.
It's always "us" and "we", never "I" or "me". It's amazing how much you can
get done if you don't have to take credit for it.
7. Have an over arching theme or test for budget items.
We had a high unemployment problem so the test we applied was, "Will this
move the economy forward or backwards?" Any legislation moving the economy
forward goes to the head of the line. Governor Romney already has set a
great test: Is it worth borrowing more money from China?
8. If you can't explain it, don't do it.
Every night I would sit down with my budget staff to make decision after
decision worth hundreds of millions of dollars. I told the staff I would
entertain any idea that fit the criteria we laid out as long as I could
explain it to the public. If I couldn't explain it we had no business doing
9. Engage the business lobbyists.
The business lobbyists' clients were likely to get taxed if I failed, so I
brought the most talented ones in a room and put them to work pushing my no
tax agenda. No one had ever asked them for help in an organized way
centered on passing a budget. I did and it helped.
10. Engage the press.
I was very transparent and would talk to the press about my goals and
themes, but gave relatively few specifics at first. I engaged in a
continual dialogue about my goals and themes leading up to the release of my
budget. Once again, few specifics. And then after release, I continually
explained how the budget met the goals and themes.
11. Never lay down the first piece of the puzzle.
If you promise any item to anyone you will be building the entire budget
around the first puzzle piece you lay on the table. You need flexibility,
so don't restrict future moves. I said I was willing to promise everyone
absolutely nothing and I was will to put that in writing.
12. Ask anyone, R or D, who was willing to work in good faith, "How can I
help you be successful?" Politicians can be selfish, self-centered,
egotistical people (surprise!).
It doesn't mean they are bad people or they will do a poor job, but their
political interest can be used to your legislative advantage. Most elected
officials just want to know what's in it for them or their constituents.
When they say "constituents" they really mean, "How can I used this in the
next election?" Being realistic about everyone's motivation is important to
13. Find egregious problems in the current budget and talk about them
Our state auditor stated that our state's basic health plan for the poor
never did income verification; and he found a recipient making $127k per
year on the plan. People who wanted free healthcare just signed up on the
Internet and declared their supposed income. I added two new state
employees to verify income, where after the rolls reduced dramatically. By
the time I was done highlighting this problem even the advocates had to
accept my logic. I also used the press to shame them. The advocates
previously always wanted a waiting list for the program so they could show
new founding needs before every session.
14. The language you use is one of the keys to success.
Educating my caucus on language was difficult but imperativ. Every time I
spoke it was the other side that wanted to make cuts, slash programs or
allow fraud. We were finding efficiencies, making reductions, streamlining
and correcting fraudulent acts. I would give examples concerning a limited
amount of resources and there were people illegally using funds intended for
the most vulnerable.
I believe that many lessons I learned in Olympia tackling a huge budget
problem with no new taxes and winning the battle for public opinion could be
applied by the Romney administration. The problems are solvable with the
right framework, attitude, language and political courage.
Dino Rossi, a businessman and former State Senator in Washington, was a candidate for governor in 2004.