OLYMPIA — Gov. Chris Gregoire acknowledged legislators are unlikely to pass the $2 billion in budget cuts she proposed in this special session and sees no chance they'll ask voters to approve a temporary half-cent sales tax increase in March.
In a conversation with reporters after a Senate hearing, Gregoire said she now believes whatever budget changes legislators can pass in the special session, it won't be “a full meal deal.”
Instead, she said she would consider “a significant down payment” acceptable, but declined to describe a level of cuts that she would regard as a success for the emergency session, which began last Monday.
But the special session will be valuable, she said, because it will give legislators a head-start on budget discussions which will continue when the regular session begins on Jan. 9. She predicted it will allow the Legislature to pass the earliest supplemental budget in history.
Last year, the Legislature was able to agree on some cuts to the budget during a one-day session in December. “The problem with this budget is, it's a whole new budget. It's not 'We're going to plug a small hole,'” Gregoire said.
Since the special session began, some Republicans have called for government reform in conjunction with cuts, and before any new taxes. Some Democrats have called for a better balance between program cuts and new taxes.
“Everybody's got their slogan,” she said. “At some point we need to get past the rhetoric and get to work.”
Gregoire called legislators into a special session on Nov. 28 after giving them a plan some 11 days earlier to cut about $2 billion in programs and salaries in the face of a looming gap in the budget. She also asked them to ask voters to “buy back” about $500 million of those cuts, through a statewide vote on a three-year sales tax increase.
More than a third of the way into the special session, visible progress on the budget is hard to find. Many legislators who are not in leadership or members of the budget-writing Ways and Means committees have returned to their homes, and the two chambers hold “pro forma” sessions most days.
House and Senate leaders, and the chairmen of the budget committees, have been involved in closed-door discussions among themselves and with Gregoire. The budget committees, meanwhile, have held a series of hearings in which people who rely on state programs for health care, education or social services have described the possible effects of those programs being eliminated. In the early days of the special session, protesters marched through the Capitol with chants and signs, sat down in the Rotunda until being forcibly removed by state troopers and interrupted some budget hearings with demands the Legislature raise taxes rather than cut services.
This week, however, the protesters are absent, as if they, too, are saving their energy for the regular session.
Until legislators settle on an “all cuts” budget and sees the effect those cuts have on state programs, Gregoire said, they won't be ready to ask voters to approve a tax increase like the one she's proposing, a three-year, half-cent increase in the sales tax, with money dedicated to certain public school, college, health care and public safety programs that will be cut from the budget if that tax isn't approved.
That won't happen by the end of the special session, which means the state will miss the Dec. 31 deadline for proposing a ballot measure for a special election in March. Delaying the chances for a vote on a sales tax increase means it would delay bringing revenue into the state if it passes.
“Every month that goes by that they don't have a budget, we have a bigger hole,” she said.