OLYMPIA — What Washington residents worry most about the legislative session starting Monday is whether they’ll end up worse off when lawmakers finish.
The short answer is probably. How much worse is what will be decided.
Lawmakers return after months of declining revenues that have pushed the ledger for government out of whack by $2.6 billion.
All indications are the governor and Democratic majority will seek to fix the budget by eliminating some programs and preserving others with revenue from new taxes or increases in existing ones.
With state spending linked to the daily life of so many — including classrooms, nursing homes, payday lenders, The Boeing Co., operating hours of museums and makers of talking books for the blind — it is almost impossible to imagine not feeling the effects of whatever the Legislature does.
What cuts are made and taxes imposed is the question facing legislators in the next 60 days.
Three people are expected to provide the answer: Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire, House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.
This powerful trio will weigh and debate the social and political costs of various mixes of budget-balancing ingredients.
Come March, when the 60-day session is supposed to end, the three will negotiate the final details of a package to place before the Legislature for action.
While each of the 147 lawmakers will have a vote, not every one of them will enjoy equal sway in the conversation for next eight weeks.
Voices of Democrats will carry greater volume and weight than Republicans by virtue of their numeric advantage in both chambers: 61-37 in the House and 31-18 in the Senate.
“We will voice our opinions. Ultimately Democrats have the votes to do whatever they want,” said Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Monroe, who is the caucus chairman.
Though they may be relegated to the sidelines, Republicans’ spirits are buoyed when Democrats such as Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, chairwoman of the House Ways and Means Committee, embraced ending the state’s monopoly on liquor sales. That’s a reform of government long sought by the GOP.
“It’s what we’ve been talking about,” said Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, the ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “To me, that’s the beginning of solving our problems.”
Among Democrats, not everyone will enjoy equal influence.
Those in the upper ranks of leadership and those running committees where budget bills are vetted will be best positioned to influence what ultimately gets crafted by Chopp, Brown and Gregoire.
While some of the 21 lawmakers representing a piece of Snohomish County will be in the room when key decisions are discussed, many will not, though most can count on being consulted or courted.
Rep. Mark Ericks, D-Bothell, as vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, should wind up at a table with Chopp often.
Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, may be there too near crunch time, given his role as chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee.
In that post, he will craft a budget for spending millions of dollars on programs as diverse as building schools and youth centers, installing sewer systems and promoting youth theater programs. The spread of those dollars may be critical in locking up support from some Democratic legislators.
Similarly, Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island, may be sought out often as chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee. The budget she will draft for transportation spending could prove helpful in securing votes needed for passage of the final product.
Education will be a major focus of budget talks. That means Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, chairwoman of the Senate education committee will be in frequent closed-door meetings.
Others such as Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park, who guides the panel on early learning, and Rep. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, who is chairman of the committee dealing with green energy will be solicited for their respective expertise.
McCoy said he’s has talked to each of the “Big Three” about his concerns for what ends up in the budget.
“I have had indications I’m being heard,” he said. “The leadership is having an open process.”
Passing the budget won’t be a cinch for Democrats. It will pare dollars from programs they traditionally support and raise money by means their constituents don’t. Those members whose voices might seem muted by their absence from key panels could get most of the attention if they hold out their support.
“Raising revenue is never popular. It is sort of an ‘all hands on deck’ to get those 50 votes needed to pass it,” Rep. Marko Liias, D-Edmonds said. “Each of us has the power to be that 50th vote to move something or not move something out of the House.”
Haugen, a moderate Democrat, is disinclined to back higher taxes. She may need convincing at some point.
“Leadership is going to have to be listening to the people in their caucus,” she said. “I haven’t got a lot of people come up to me and say raise my taxes.”
She understands the stakes are high. Gregoire’s initial proposed budget contained no new revenue, as required, and eliminated health care programs for low-income families, decimated health care coverage for children and slashed dollars for public schools.
“It’s not pretty. It’s going to come down to what are people willing to live without,” Haugen said. “If you can’t live without it, you’d better be willing to vote to pay for it, to vote for taxes.”
Brown sounded confident Wednesday that Senate Democrats are pretty much on the same page entering the session.
“I have 25 senators willing to stand up and do the right thing,” she said. “My caucus could get there in a week if it was just us. It is not just us.”
Chopp’s caucus is filled with liberals who don’t like most cuts and don’t mind some taxes. In an election year, there are enough skittish about their political futures to require him to navigate carefully to discover the right formula for where cuts are made and how taxes are handled. The caucus met Thursday to focus on the issue of raising revenue.
“I really think the leadership has tried to have a much more inclusive conversation over the last few months,” Kagi said.
Somber days lie ahead as legislators anticipate an arduous, contentious, sobering and emotion-packed session.
“People are very impressed with the responsibility we have to come up with a balanced budget and the difficulty of doing that,” she said. “We know we’re going into a war, and the trick will be getting us to come together.”
Republicans are often involved in budget talks early in a session then shut out of the final deal making, Kristiansen said.
“My fear is that will happen again,” he said. “If we’re not going to be involved in the conversation then it truly is not a bipartisan effort.”
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.