‘Everybody is a little on edge’ as legislative session begins

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers began their regular session Monday fully expecting it to wind up as one of the most tumultuous they’ll ever face.

During the next eight weeks, legislators will negotiate how to rebalance the state budget while maneuvering through a thicket of volatile issues, any one of which could set off a partisan fight in the House or Senate.

“This is unlike any other opening day in my 10 years,” said Sen. Maralyn Chase, D-Edmonds. “People’s emotions are very tender. Everybody is a little on edge. We’re going to have to do things we don’t want to do.”

Topping lawmakers’ agenda is plugging a budget shortfall pegged at $1.23 billion in a report delivered Monday to the House Ways and Means Committee. That represents the difference between the amount of tax revenues coming in and the level of spending to which the Legislature committed last session.

As they debate where to cut, lawmakers will try to avoid paring dollars from public schools because the state Supreme Court ruled last week the state was not living up to its responsibility of fully funding basic education.

Taxes are on the agenda, too. Democratic lawmakers want to raise revenue most likely via the ballot. Gov. Chris Gregoire is pressing for a vote on raising the sales tax by a half-cent with most of the money going into schools and colleges.

Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, chairwoman of the Senate education committee, said boosting funds for schools must be discussed.

“Now is the time for the public and the Legislature to decide what are we going to fund,” she said. “There are so many issues people are throwing onto the table. In 60 days, we have to focus on funding education. All of these other issues are important. This is the future of our kids.”

And today, the governor is expected to outline a plan to raise billions of dollars for transportation projects. Increasing fees will be part of the proposal she’ll discuss in her State of the State address.

In the meantime, several volatile social issues are on the docket. Bills will be introduced to allow same-sex couples to marry, require private insurers to cover abortion and let adults smoke marijuana legally.

Finally, with more than half the 147 lawmakers up for re-election, it will be hard to not find politics playing a role in many debates.

Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens, said, “It’s stressful. Everybody knows it’s not going to be an easy session.”

He insisted he’s optimistic lawmakers will find a way to find solutions without the turmoil many anticipate.

“I don’t see it being explosive,” he said. “But it is only Day One.”

Republicans said Monday they want to deal with the state’s budget and economic recovery and not other subjects like gay marriage.

“We need to stay focused on the issues critical to our economic development,” said Rep. Norma Smith, R-Clinton.

Rep. Mike Hope, R-Lake Stevens, who arrived on crutches because of a knee injury, sounded pretty dour about what lies ahead.

“I think it’s going to be the same chapter we’ve read the last few years. How much do we cut,” he said. “I don’t think there’s going to be anything new.”

Noticeable by his absence Monday was Tim Eyman of Mukilteo, who typically times the launch of his latest initiative with the return of the Legislature.

He did file measures on five subjects Friday, including limiting use of red light cameras and requiring a supermajority vote of lawmakers to raise taxes. He said he won’t decide for several weeks which of the five he’ll pursue because lawmakers might try to undermine him.

“They’re just really sneaky. They could sabotage us,” he said. “We want to see what happens this legislative session to see what problems we want to give the voters a chance to solve.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com

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