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Eye On Olympia

Archive for March 2005

Drink up…

One of the most interesting things Gov. Christine Gregoire mentioned in a meeting last week with the Spokesman-Review’s editorial board was that until a week and a half ago, her budget proposal included a tax on soda pop.

It’s not a new idea. Former Gov. Gary Locke proposed such a tax among the “sin taxes” in his final, lame-duck budget proposal in December — and was roundly mocked by Republicans who questioned whether a Pepsi really qualifies as a sin. The issue’s come up in previous years as well. Soda pop syrup is already taxed by the state, but Locke was looking at something more along the lines of a nickel-per-can tax.

Gregoire said she torpedoed the idea after lawmakers objected. Her budget director, Victor Moore, said the industry was unhappy at the prospect of the drink tax.

Still, taxing pop is likely to remain an attractive fix for budget writers struggling to come up money to pay for state services.

For one thing, it’s kind of like cigarette taxes (which Gregoire is proposing hiking). Sugary soda and its empty calories, some lawmakers have argued, are a prime reason for the growing number of obese children. Make it cost more, the argument goes, and public health will improve, at least marginally.

Secondly, there’s real money in a soda tax. Lawmakers have plenty of tax options to look at, but many of them raise the Olympia version of chump change. Tax bakery products, for example, and you can expect about $27 million a year. Tax candy and gum: $16 million. Tax funeral homes: $4 million.

Even if the state charges every household in the state a flat $2-a-month “energy tax,” it would still raise only $55 million a year. And when weighed against a $26 billion general fund, those amounts are what some lawmakers call “budget dust.”

A nickel-a-can tax on soda, however, would raise $301 million over the next two years. That’s enough general-fund dollars to run Eastern Washington University, the Washington State Patrol, the state park system, the Department of Ecology, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and the governor’s office. Combined. For two years.

Coach Lynch retires with a thank-you from the dome…

“This is an ending that a Hollywood screenwriter could only dream about.”

— Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, in a floor speech honoring longtime coach Mike Lynch and the Lind-Ritzville Broncos winning the state Class B football championship. He was referring to a last-minute pass that won the championship.

Welcome to our e-mail in-box…

“Gregoire budget reverses some cuts to state’s most vulnerable”
“New taxes, gimmicks in Gregoire budget disappoint Republican fiscal leaders”
“Governor’s budget a `half step’ in the right direction”
“Gregoire breaks campaign pledge, moves to raise taxes”
“Gregoire plays budget shell games to avoid vote of the people”
“Gregoire budget contains necessary spending cuts, unnecessary tax increases”
“Gregoire funds educator COLAs”
“Bergeson says Gregoire budget a step in the right direction for K-12”
“Proposed budget wrong direction for long-term care”

— A sampling of the first wave of emailed press releases reacting to Gov. Christine Gregoire’s two-year, $25.8 billion budget proposal.

Of monkeys and fear…

“Sure we monkeyed with it. Both sides of the aisle monkeyed with it. But we did it with fear and trepidation.”

— Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester, acknowledging the fact that both Republicans and Democrats have stretched the state’s spending limit in recent years.

How to get out of that red-light ticket…

“All you have to do is say `I wasn’t driving that car’ and the ticket goes away…Do you really want to have cars driving themselves around the state of Washington?”

-Sen. Mike Carrell, R-Lakewood, in a speech on the Senate floor. He was opposing a bill that expressly allows local governments to use traffic cameras to nab speeders and red-light-runners.

A tax menu…

Late last November, the state Department of Revenue prepared a document called “Estimated Impact of Major Revenue Alternatives” for lawmakers.

The five-page document is essentially a menu of 156 possible tax increases: if you do X, it generates $Y.

Here are a few of the examples that Revenue researchers came up with, along with how much money each would raise over two years.

-Adding a penny to the sales tax: $2 billion.
-Taxing candy and gum: $32 million.
-Charging sales tax on newspapers: $29 million.
-Charging the equivalent of a sales tax on veterinarians ($37 million), beauty salons ($49 million), movie theaters ($22 million), bowling alleys ($5 million), lawyers ($323 million), accountants ($136 million) and doctors ($423 million).
-Boosting cigarette taxes from the current $1.42 a pack to $1.50 a pack: $28 million.
-Adding a five-cent tax to a can of soda pop: $300 million.

Re: the ratio of generals to privates…

“Some of it has been favoritism, some of it has been empire-building, and some of it has been `Well, we think they should have higher status.’”

-Tim Welch, spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, on the union’s theory of why the state’s Washington Management Service has grown more than tenfold over the past decade.

Gov. Christine Gregoire said this week that she wants to cut 1,000 middle-management jobs, many of them from the Washington Management Service. A state study three years ago found that more than half the managers don’t directly “manage” anyone.

Getting a tax break — and then some…

“It turns out that in our zeal to look out for taxpayers, we’ve sometimes given them two tax exemptions for one activity.”

Rep. Jim McIntire, D-Seattle, urging colleagues to vote to repeal a dozen outdated and redundant tax breaks.

Among them: an exemption from penalties for late payment of property taxes due to any Y2K computer problems.

Batting one in…

After four years of watching every bill he proposed founder and die, Rep. John Ahern this week managed a victory.

The House of Representatives has passed his House bill 1453, which would erase any statute of limitations for first- and second-degree rape of a child. State law now makes it virtually impossible to prosecute such crimes after a decade or once the victim turns 21, whichever is later.

The bill is a slimmed-down version of Ahern’s original version, which would have included many lesser sex crimes involving children. But after years of watching it die in committee, he said he’d take his victories where he could.

“I would rather get something than nothing,” said Ahern, R-Spokane. “Now the perpetrator is going to be looking over their shoulder for the rest of their natural life.”

His next project is another perennial statehouse casualty: a law making it a felony to repeatedly drive drunk.

Wanted: fake black handlebar mustaches and ominous piano music…

Over barbecue lunches, a group of Spokane social-service advocates gathered in a round room beneath the capitol rotunda recently to make their case that state budget decisions are putting vulnerable kids in real danger.

To illustrate that, they’d rigged up a couple of toy trains which, on cue, ran headlong into a ragdoll tied to the plastic train tracks.

And just in case anyone missed the point of who’s driving those trains, the advocates handed out gifts to lawmakers, including blue-striped train engineers’ caps.

What was left on the cutting-room floor…

As legislative deadlines hit, more and more bills are getting killed. Here, for example, is a sampler of (largely-Republican) bills that have died in the Senate:

-SB 5905: To allow immediate eviction of tenants committing crimes or “unlawful civil disruptions.”
-SB 5078: Canceling all voter registrations and requiring re-registration by 2007.
-SB 5079: Holding a special election for governor this year.
-SB 5821: Requiring that girls under 18 notify a parent before getting an abortion, except in a medical emergency.
-SB 5747: Freezing the minimum wage during bad economic times.
-SB 5677: Permanently revoking teaching certificates for teachers guilty of viewing sexually explicit materials on school grounds.

But sorry, still no Prada…

Want to give your favorite state elected official or state worker a nice gift, but just can’t seem to find anything under $50?

You’re in luck. The state House of Representatives is considering HB 2089, which would raise the bar for such gifts to $75. As the law stands now, the annual limit for gifts to state politicians and employees is $50.

The limit doesn’t apply to gifts from family or friends, awards, prizes, scholarships or, of course, campaign contributions. Nor does it apply to flowers and food at official functions, regardless of value.

The bill, prime-sponsored by Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, would boost the limit $10 every other year.

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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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