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Here We Go, The 61st Legislative Session Begins Monday

Here We Go, The 61st Legislative Session Begins Monday

By Keith Vance
January 09, 2009

“The budget will dominate the session,” Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane said on Tuesday at a forum sponsored by the Associated Press.

It’s hard to argue with the Majority Leader when you look at the budget Gov. Christine Gregoire released last month. The governor cut about $3 billion in spending and even with an estimated $1 billion in economic aid expected from President Obama, more work is needed to balance the budget.

Sen. Joseph Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, said: “The governor probably had the easiest job.” The budget deficit, he said could be as much as $7 billion before the 105-day legislative session is over.

Republicans attending the forum on Tuesday were quick to point fingers at the Democrats, claiming that it’s not the failing national economy that’s to blame for the budget deficit but rather it’s the fault of Democrats in Olympia who can’t stop spending money.

Sen. Minority Leader Richard DeBolt said the budget is “heading for disaster” because of unchecked spending by Democrats.

Responding to Republican accusations Rep. Christine Rolfes said on Thursday by phone: "I don't believe that funding public education, higher education, health care and ferries was wrong. Even in good times, we’re still woefully underfunding [these programs].”

Republican Sen. Mike Hewitt on Tuesday said that we need to "stop the bleeding," and to do that spending has to be slashed.

DeBolt said: “If [a bill] has a budget impact we’re not going to be doing that this year.”

Maybe DeBolt is right and maybe he’s not, because if you do the math Democrats hold a majority in both chambers of the state legislature and they theoretically won’t need a single Republican vote to pass any bill.

Rep. Sherry Appleton, D-Poulsbo said by phone on Thursday: “The bottom line is that we want to protect the programs for the most vulnerable.”

Rep. Rolfes echoed Appleton’s concerns on Thursday as well. “People that are lower income will get hit harder,” she said.

Appleton is on the House Health and Human Services committee. She said that one of the reasons that we’re facing a deficit isn’t because of spendthrift Democrats but rather it’s because our state relies so heavily on sales tax revenue. When the economy takes a nosedive, the legislature is left staring at a budget with a gaping deficit.

“If people are holding their money, we have no sales tax,” Appleton said. “We have no stability. That’s not a responsible way to run government.”
Representative Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said on Tuesday that even with the looming budget deficit he remains committed to providing health care to all children by 2010.

Where will the money come from?

Democrats aren’t saying they will push for any tax increases to balance the budget but they aren’t ruling it out either.

Appleton would like to see tax exemptions suspended for two years and tax loopholes closed. While she acknowledged that some may call her plan a tax increase. “It’s not a tax increase,” Appleton said.

Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham spoke on Tuesday of “shared sacrifices,” but warned that some programs such as education can’t wait two years for an increase in spending. The budget passed this session will be for the fiscal years 2009 and 2010.

It’s going to tough to get two-thirds of the legislature to pass a tax increase, therefore by law any tax increase will have to go to the voters for approval.

That could be a hard sell considering that a record number of Washingtonians, more than 90,000 of us, filed for unemployment insurance in December, according the Employment Security Department.

Developing green jobs, Chopp said, is the future of our economy. When asked what plan the members have to create green jobs in our state, particularly if money from the Obama Administration is earmarked to go towards developing a green economy, as of Tuesday the legislators attending the forum had no specific plan.

Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-23rd District said that he’s going to sponsor a bill to give businesses a $500 tax credit for every job they create, green or otherwise.

And then there’s the issue of the struggling ferry system, which according to a report released last month by the Washington State Department of Transportation predicts the program will be running billions over budget in 20 years.

WSDOT has proposed two plans. Plan A would keep the current ferry system intact, and ask for money from the Legislature. Plan B would be to push the burden of maintaining the ferry system onto the local communities that use the ferries and to cut service.

“Reducing service is a non-starter,” Kilmer said. “Losing service has real impact.”

The battle is set to begin in Olympia in a couple of days and many of the issues will have real impact on people’s lives.

"It's going to be a long session,” Rolfes said. “A lot of really hard decisions. A lot of people angry and scared.”

Where does the governor stand on all these issues?

Gregoire was scheduled to speak to the press on Tuesday but on Monday her staff canceled. They declined to say why the governor had canceled, or even where she was, only that she was at an undisclosed location, possibly Washington, D.C. The governor eventually turned up in Iraq.