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Locke Praised for Fiscal Policy

on 2/13/01.

''What we like most isn't so much what he's done as it is that he's been respectful of the voters' desire to cut spending.''

Stephen Slivinski, fiscal policy analyst By Richard Roesler Staff writer OLYMPIA - Largely because Washington voters years ago tied the state's purse strings with a spending cap, Gov. Gary Locke was named Monday as one of the nation's most tightfisted governors.

The Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank, gave Locke a grade of B for fiscal policy. That ties him for fourth-best with Connecticut Republican John Rowland, and top among all Democratic governors.

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, a Republican, came in 29th, well back in a field of C's. Locke's high score had some of his critics scratching their heads.

''I find it astonishing,'' said Gary Strannigan, director of Washington's Citizens for a Sound Economy, a limited-government group. Washington has the 17th highest state and local taxes in the nation, he said, and is contemplating billions of dollars more in transportation spending.

Locke scored high largely in spite of himself, according to the report. During his first term, the governor's proposals to spend more were limited by a Republican-dominated legislature, the authors said. He was also handcuffed by Initiative 601, a 1993 spending cap tied to the inflation rate and population growth. As a result, state government has grown more slowly in Washington than in all but a handful of states.

''What we like most isn't so much what he's done as it is that he's been respectful of the voters' desire to cut spending,'' said Stephen Slivinski, a fiscal policy analyst who co-authored the report.

Sen. Jim West, R-Spokane, was surprised. ''All of that is because of the Republican Legislature and the voters' spending cap, he said. ''The voters deserve it more than the governor.''

Locke was pleased by the high marks, said Dana Middleton, his communications director.

The state's ranking was 10 points higher than two years ago.

''Our objective for the next fiscal report card is, of course, to earn an A grade,'' Locke said in a statement Monday evening. That may be hard. The scores are based on year-to-year changes in state spending. And Locke is proposing raising the spending cap by nearly $ 500 million, largely in response to voter passage of Initiative 732, which forces automatic pay hikes for teachers.

''He's got a tough job, particularly this year, balancing all the needs that are out there,'' said co-Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle.

Slivinski was disconcerted by the news that Locke wants to lift the spending cap. ''We'd be very concerned about that,'' he said.