Local legislators focus on priorities for state
OLYMPIA — Washington state lawmakers gathered Monday to begin a legislative session that is expected to include a broad revamp of government spending and a close review of whether the state should legalize gay marriage.
Budget negotiators are already working towards the Legislature’s main task, closing a roughly $1 billion projected budget shortfall, even though both parties have widely differing views on the best approach.
“This is as challenging as anything we’ve ever had to deal with in a short session,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, a Democrat, after her chamber adjourned for the day.
The state runs on spending plans that are re-written every two years, with a tuneup at the halfway mark. The Legislature gets 105 days to write the big budget in odd-numbered years, and 60 days to approve the midstream changes.
In December, Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed spending cuts that included a shortened school year, the elimination of social services for thousands of low-income residents and the early release of some prisoners.
The Democratic governor also proposed a temporary half-cent sales tax increase that would raise nearly $500 million a year and offset some cuts — particularly in education.
House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis said that tax proposal would simply be a Band-Aid on a severed arm and that his party wants to reshape and refocus government. He also said his party wanted to fund education but cautioned against what he called a “regressive” tax increase.
“Quit holding our kids hostage for a tax increase,” he said.
Aside from the upcoming budget debates, Gregoire renewed a broader discussion on same-sex marriage as she announced her support last week and said she’d be pushing for legislation to be passed in the coming months.
House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, included same-sex marriage in a list of priorities during a floor speech Monday.
“I respect that there are strong views on both sides of this issues, but this is the right time to be fair to people — and choose equality,” Chopp said.
Republicans have balked at efforts to approve gay marriage.
Marijuana legalization is also being proposed. Supporters turned in petition signatures last month. If the Legislature doesn’t take up the issue, it automatically goes to the November ballot.
Lawmakers made some adjustments to the state budget in December, relying on some cuts, transfers and delayed payments. Along with fixing the $1 billion gap, they want to leave several hundred million dollars as a buffer in case the economy underperforms.
Democratic Sen. Ed Murray, a leading budget writer, said he hoped lawmakers would finish their budget work in February in order to get a public vote on the tax plan in the spring. He said the budget process is challenging because lawmakers are looking closely at cutting programs that directly impact vulnerable people, such as people with health challenges or people who have developmentally disabled children.
“When you look at cutting those programs, it’s a very, very, very painful process,” Murray said.