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New normal is time to recalibrate rainy day fund

Sucker punched and mugged by a tiny little virus.

In every reasonable sense of what it means to be actively aware, we did not see COVID-19 coming. Even when our human leaders did become aware, at all levels – federal, state, and local – the machine of government lumbered slowly in implementing actions that in hindsight might have saved lives and protected the economy if cumbersome  bureaucracies were able to produce swift and targeted results—which they are not.

The frenzy of finger-pointing across the political divide provides the best clue that everyone who possessed any legal or moral authority to take proactive steps ahead of this crisis was caught flat-footed. Most were gripped in a very human cognitive logjam of not wanting to overreact to what might have been an overblown threat.

The after-action report will be assembled at some point in the future. One hopes it will be the product of thorough, disinterested fact-finding the public can have some faith in. Today, one thing is abundantly clear: The legislature must devise new ways to put the cookie jar of the rainy day fund far out of the reach of future legislatures. It must recalibrate how it taxes and spends to our re-discovery of an ever-present earthly condition: nature is chaotic while civilization, though resilient, is fragile.

Recent history does not include a single year in which plans weren’t made to raid the rainy day fund, the only mechanism the state government has to deal with sudden changes in revenue or the need for emergency spending. There should never again be a glimmer of an inkling of a germ of a thought about raiding the rainy day fund to pay for supplemental spending. In fact, the formula for when and how deposits must be made into the fund should also be recalibrated. And this does not mean government should increase the amount of its taking in order to accumulate a much larger cache of cash. It is true that we are all in this together, and as such, we should all be given the best chance to prepare. That means Government must find ways to live within its means after a brutal analysis of needs versus wants and costs versus benefits.

While Gov. Jay Inslee has already demonstrated an inclination toward some of this thinking by vetoing $445 million in spending increases that the legislature had authorized for the next three years citing the impact the new spending would have on taxpayers already reeling from the economic punch of COVID, much more must be done.

That said, assessing our preparedness goes deeper than investigating what happened when the coronavirus was invisibly infecting the people of Washington state. Focusing on that slice of the disaster timeline alone can yield hard lessons and best practices to help us better respond to a future mega-threat as long as it looks a lot like coronavirus and we’re able to see it coming. Of course, the next mega-threat may not be another viral pandemic.  If by chance it is,  then just as the intrinsic nature of a scorpion is to sting, the nature of a disaster is also to be unannounced, audacious and acyclic.

It’s unrealistic to think that we have the power to entirely avoid disaster; our energies are better spent finding ways for give every aspect of society a fighting chance to weather very diverse catastrophic scenarios. We shouldn’t reject the perfectly calibrated lens of hindsight nor the universal takeaway that it will make clear: we should never again make plans that don’t imagine our being in this same surreal, quasi-nightmarish condition again.

The COVID-19 after-action assessment must be bold enough to take a critical look backward, to sort the many choices made by Washington State government going back months – even years – into the past. That begins with a long, hard look at rainy day fund protocols, while also engaging in a stark reconsideration of how excessive government spending has deprived individuals and businesses of the choice to build their own reserves – decisions that force the government to assume massive burdens to support the public when it should be focusing on a direct response to the pandemic itself.

We cannot with a straight face emerge with a belief that by studying our response to one pandemic that we can painlessly fend off every future danger. The one thing we can know is that when we work to protect an economy that has substantial cash reserves – in the hands of government, the private sector, and the people – our odds of surviving catastrophe improve and the number of options left open to decisionmakers increases.

When next the legislature convenes, it should move to find ways to allow families and businesses to keep more of their income, while imagining how to provide better information and incentives for preparedness. Businesses should be allowed to provide for employees, and individuals for themselves—but this begins with decreasing the high amount of taking.

Let all remember: The rainy day fund is the government’s umbrella for itself. Under economic drought conditions, businesses, families and individuals may draw from it indirectly through a variety of safety net programs, but the primary purpose of the fund is to allow the government to continue spending as if the economy was chugging along.

Never again should the entire public be asked to hold the umbrella while so many are left shivering in the rain.

Bryan Myrick is a native Washingtonian who has written about state, local and national politics since 2008, and has worked as a consultant on a number of high-profile ballot measure and candidate campaigns. He graduated from the University of Washington with majors in Political Science and Communications.

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