Legislature’s special session could get ugly over budget

OLYMPIA — Lawmakers are beating a path back to Olympia on Monday for what has the makings of a tense special session to close another multibillion-dollar fissure in the state budget.

Democrats say they will be focused on solving the problem by not only trimming government spending but also raising new tax revenue.

Republicans are equally committed to opposing new or higher taxes and will fight to bridge the gap solely by spending less.

With prospects for a sustained clash, members in both parties are tamping down expectations of what will be accomplished in the session, which could last a month.

“If I was going to handicap it, the odds are long that anything gets done,” said Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish. “It’s not pivotal anything get done. We could deal with the budget problem in January.”

Agreement on a small package of reductions might be achieved, he and others said. A deal to erase the projected shortfall of $1.4 billion and set aside a few hundred million dollars more in reserve seems out of reach until the 2012 regular session.

“We will either be at the point the other Washington is or we will have something to vote on before Christmas,” said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee.

Lawmakers are seeking a solution to a $2 billion problem.

In May, they passed a budget that commits the state to spend $1.4 billion more than it now expects to collect in taxes. That’s the gap they need to fill to rebalance the budget that runs through June 2013. Lawmakers and Gov. Chris Gregoire want to come up with an additional $600 million for a reserve.

How to get to $2 billion is the high wire on which Democrats and Republicans are wrestling.

For months, many Democrats have said raising revenue must be part of the final outcome as it was in 2009 when a nearly $800 million package got passed. When Gregoire called for a sales tax hike and other revenue-raising measures this week, it emboldened them because the governor rejected boosting any taxes earlier this year.

“There can’t be, ‘We’ll do cuts now and do revenue later.’ Those two things have to walk together. There’s got to be a balance from day one,” Dunshee said. “Nobody is going to do all cuts in December in exchange for a beer tomorrow.”

Among Democrats, there is no consensus yet on the means to do so. They are vetting proposals to end tax breaks, close loopholes, impose new taxes and raise existing ones on windfall profits of oil companies and financial institutions.

Gregoire’s idea of asking voters for a temporary increase in the sales tax is on the table, too, though it’s received a mostly lukewarm reception thus far.

Republicans are united against new or higher taxes and are braced for almost certain showdown on the floor of each chamber.

“We’re going to look at reform before we look at revenue,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.

GOP leaders don’t rule out all options; they’ve said they’ll get rid of tax breaks that are no longer used or fail to deliver as intended.

Alexander said his caucus will also propose ways to bring in money such as allowing slot machine-like gaming in existing non-tribal casinos. It could generate $120 million for this budget, he said.

To be certain, politics isn’t the only impediment to completing a deal to erase the deficit. Logistically, every change in spending — be it a cut or revenue measure — will need a bill. Writing and passing them takes time, of which there isn’t a lot.

“I think we should try to work toward (a deal) but I don’t know how we can do that in so short a period,” said Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens. “There are some things we could pass early, but, for the most part, this is a fairly substantial budget problem.”

Though spending cuts and taxes will steal the spotlight, putting people back to work may be the subject on which the two parties find unity.

“We’re going to see if there is any jobs package we can put together,” said Rep. Mike Sells, D-Everett, chairman of the House Labor and Workforce Development Committee.

His panel will likely consider elements of Gregoire’s $9.8 million plan to boost aerospace training and education in order to win the Boeing Co.’s 737 MAX.

One piece would fund more engineering slots at campuses of the University of Washington and Washington State University. Some money also could land in Snohomish County, where WSU plans to offer an engineering course on the Everett Community College campus in 2012.

Dunshee is involved in efforts to come up with a means of putting unemployed veterans, construction workers and young people to work. The goal is to create up to 30,000 jobs.

“I think many more people care about jobs than they do about the budget,” Dunshee said.

That shortfall is the session’s main event. Starting Monday, House and Senate committees will hold public hearings on Gregoire’s blueprint for rebalancing the budget.

She’s sketched out $1.7 billion in cuts, most of those coming in education, health care, human services and public safety. She also is asking lawmakers to consider options to raise $835 million, including $494 million from a half-cent hike in the sales tax.

Meanwhile, lawmakers can expect a boisterous welcome Monday from students, seniors, and people with disabilities, as well as teachers, caregivers and health care workers.

Several groups, including the Washington Education Association and the Service Employees International Union, are organizing separate events to protest further cuts and support raising revenue. In all, 3,000 people are expected in and around the Capitol.

Kim Mead, president of the Everett Education Association, will be among a group of Snohomish County teachers at a noon event.

“We’re coming down to talk about our kids. We’re coming down to say they can’t take any more cuts,” she said. “We need them to apply a tourniquet to prevent more bleeding. Revenue, in general, is what we need.”

Mary Lindquist, president of the state teachers’ union, who has watched the Legislature reduce spending in each of the last three years, expects little cheer in this holiday season session.

“There’s nothing left to cut that isn’t going to hurt some of our must vulnerable citizens and our public schools,” she said. “I think it’s going to be a very ugly session.”

Learn more

More information on the governor’s budget: ofm.wa.gov

More information on the session, including committee hearings and bills: www.leg.wa.gov

Follow the action on television and online on TVW: www.tvw.org

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