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Eye On Olympia

As session nears the halfway mark, lawmakers still have little to say about what they’re planning to do…

The TNT’s Joe Turner today blasted House and Senate leaders for their continued radio silence on major cuts and tax increases under consideration. Both House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown seem unhappy that reporters haven’t paid more attention to recent legislation that trimmed state spending about $300 million this year and backfilled another $300 million of this year’s deficit with federal dollars.

With this year’s legislative session nearly halfway over, as Turner points out, “that doesn’t address even one tenth of the $8 billion budget deficit they are facing.”

We keep hearing rumors that interest groups are polling, holding meetings and doing focus groups to figure out which tax increases a recession-era public would most likely support. Legislative leaders, asked about this, say very little. And Brown, in particular, is unhappy that reporters are asking about tax increases instead of writing about budget cuts. Writes Turner:

See, Brown considers the Press Corps merely an extension of the Senate Democratic propaganda machine. If we aren’t with them, then we’re against them. There is no middle ground. Now, I probably would write some of those stories but for one thing: They haven’t happened yet. And they aren’t going to happen until or unless the state actually cuts spending on those programs.

What we have right now are lots and lots of folks predicting what will happen IF their particular program is cut. And Brown wants us to write those the-sky-is-falling stories. We in the Press Corps are supposed to soften you up. You voters. We’re supposed to write stories about how bad things are going to get if you, the voters, don’t agree to approve whatever tax package they put before you.

He’s not the first to publicly voice frustration. Late last week, public radio’s Austin Jenkins decried the “big lack of straight-talking going on in Olympia” when it comes to either major cuts or tax hikes.

It’s a bizarre situation. Lawmakers — particularly in the Senate — are issuing a flurry press releases, blog posts and online videos telling what a dire (awful/horrendous/devastating/bad) budget situation the state faces. And Brown’s hoping to open a heart-to-heart dialogue with voters about cuts-versus-some-tax-increases. Then, when asked what they’re doing about it — or even what they’re thinking about doing — the answer from lawmakers is essentially “We’ll let you know what we decide.”

There are some legitimate reasons for waiting to make key decisions, such as March 19th revenue forecast and an upcoming caseload forecast. But reporters are increasingly skeptical that lawmakers, staring down the barrel of one of the worst state budget shortfalls in the nation, aren’t deep into the planning about what to do about it while they wait for those March numbers to roll in.

Also, they seem to be actively resisting reporters’ efforts to find out what they’re doing. In January, I and at least two other capitol reporters filed records requests with the state Department of Revenue, asking for any documents involving any statehouse requests for information about tax increases. The idea: to see what lawmakers are talking about.

The exact same request involving the department’s communication with the governor’s office was released a week and a half ago. (These records were routine fiscal stuff.)

But the legislative records? I was initially told the records would be available Feb. 13. Then the 17th. Then the 24th. And now March 9th.

“The Department and the Legislature are currently evaluating whether any exemptions or privileges apply to the documents,” said the most recent response.


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

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