Legislators Stampede To Cut Taxes But Lowry Wants To Learn About Federal Cuts First

Like the only adult at a slumber party, Gov. Mike Lowry is doing a lot of finger wagging lately, urging responsibility, gently chastising and warning of dire consequences if nobody listens.

So far, it appears nobody is.

Lawmakers convening a 60-day legislative session Monday say they are determined to cut taxes by more than $220 million the very first day. That puts them on a collision course with Lowry, who warns tax cuts that big will punch an irreparable hole in the state budget.

The federal government is poised to cut billions over the next several years from the money it sends the state for programs like Medicaid, transportation and housing, Lowry estimates, so now is not the time for big tax cuts. Better to wait and see what the feds actually do, the governor warns.

He’s being drowned out by a tax-cut mantra from lawmakers in both parties and both houses. An almost $700 million surplus is burning a hole in their pockets this election year, which puts nearly every lawmaker’s job on the line.

The tax fight is merely the biggest of several issues that promise to turn the stately Capitol into a legislative blender stuck on puree.

House Republicans are proposing everything from clapping state prisoners in leg irons and setting them to hard labor in chain gangs, to slapping a curfew on every kid in the state.

Senate Democrats are siding with Republicans on tax cuts, but running from much of the rest of their agenda. Lowry is busily building a firewall between lawmakers and what he insists are the state’s long-term best interests.

Meanwhile, the budget stalemate in the other Washington ensures the spending debate in Olympia will unfold in a near vacuum of information about how much federal money the state will get.

By Lowry’s calculation, cutting taxes as proposed by Senate Democrats and the House GOP will put the state $1 billion in the hole by the year 2002.

That’s if the state makes up only two-thirds of the estimated $4 billion in federal budget cuts over the next seven years. And if there’s no recession.

“I’m very scared about that. Scared to death,” Lowry said. “It’s very important to be fiscally prudent and responsible and have a vision beyond the 1996 election.

“What is the reason for taking this huge risk in 1996? Why not have this debate in 1997? That would be the prudent thing to do.”

Instead, legislators are “having this competition about who can cut deepest the fastest. .. I’m concerned it will be over by the second day,” Lowry said.

That’s just what lawmakers have in mind.

Sen. Nita Rinehart, D-Seattle, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, held a hearing on the Senate’s two tax cut bills last week, before the session even began. That’s so the bills can be adopted on the Senate floor on Monday.

Senate Democrats and House Republicans propose trimming the business and occupation tax and cutting the state share of the property tax in half. That would save the owner of a $100,000 home about $22 a year.

Rinehart, a candidate for governor, said the tax cuts will help middle-class families, a claim the governor dismissed.

“Let us dispense with the idea that it gets to the little person,” Lowry said. “It doesn’t. What it does is hurt the education system for everyone’s children. This is help for the big guy.”

Larger business and property owners stand to gain the most from both tax cuts, because they are proposed across the board. The bigger the business and plusher the property, the more generous the break.

It’s a fact that hasn’t been lost on the Democrats’ usual supporters, including labor and education leaders, women’s and children’s advocates and the League of Women Voters. They all panned the tax cut package last week.

Rinehart argued the $300 million reserve the Senate Democrats’ budget would retain leaves enough to cushion cuts from the federal government.

“We need to be very concerned about what’s going on at the federal level but we don’t need to panic,” she said “A lot of the cuts aren’t until seven years from now and a lot will happen between now and then, including three congressional elections.”

That leaves plenty of time to plan and adjust, Rinehart said.

Meanwhile, Republicans are in happy shock to see Democrats crowding onto their bandwagon.

“Sometimes I have to pinch myself. I can’t believe it,” said Sen. Dan McDonald, R-Bellevue, Senate minority leader.

House Republicans want to cut taxes even more deeply than the Senate.

From property tax deferrals to compensating businesses for collecting the sales tax, they’ve got a tax break for nearly everyone, totaling $326 million for the rest of this biennium alone.

House Republicans also have introduced bills sure to raise eyebrows, from the chain gang plan to keeping kids at home after a statewide curfew.

Even on more mainstream agendas, the House, Senate and governor are all headed in different directions.

Lowry wants to increase the minimum wage and state workers’ pay, which has both houses of the Legislature saying, more or less, “huh?”

The Senate wants to spend $150 million on new programs ranging from improving school security to increasing higher education enrollments. Both Lowry and the House say the Senate budget would spend too much.

The House wants to bring back property rights, which voters soundly rejected in a statewide referendum last November. And they want to pass a welfare reform bill ignored by the Senate last year.

House Republicans want to break the beleaguered Department of Social and Health Services into separate agencies. Neither Senate Democrats nor the governor wants to go along.

About the only thing the House, Senate and governor agree on so far is spending more on high technology to increase access to higher education and link campuses.

Looming over all this debate are this year’s elections.

With two candidates for governor in the Legislature, Lowry’s re-election bid undecided, and every member of the House and about half the Senate up for re-election, the session won’t be dull.

The question is whether it will be productive: Lawmakers in both houses have pointed out that the state’s biennial budget is already in place, and in balance. So they don’t really have to agree on anything.

“We don’t have to pass one bill this session,” said Sen. Sid Snyder, D-Long Beach, Senate majority leader.

“But that would be foolhardy.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: Photos and information for 15 legislators

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: ADDRESSES

STATE SENATE P.O. Box 40482 Olympia, WA 98504-0482 STATE HOUSE P.O. Box 40600 Olympia, WA 98504-0600 GOVERNOR P.O. Box 40002 Olympia, WA 98504-0002

This sidebar appeared with the story: ADDRESSES

STATE SENATE P.O. Box 40482 Olympia, WA 98504-0482 STATE HOUSE P.O. Box 40600 Olympia, WA 98504-0600 GOVERNOR P.O. Box 40002 Olympia, WA 98504-0002

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