Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal to close a projected budget deficit without raising taxes drew praise from Republicans and “wait and see” comments from fellow Democrats Thursday.
If it holds up through a process that will stretch at least into April – and possibly longer – it may be the first time in decades state leaders have balanced a budget in bad economic times without a tax increase.
Gregoire campaigned for re-election with a pledge not to raise taxes, often with legislative Democrats on the platform next to her. Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane, said that was before the projected deficit was as deep as it is now.
While he understands the governor wants to keep her campaign promise, Wood thinks taxes “will be on the table” when legislative leaders try to write their versions of the budget. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be able to pass a tax increase, he added, because any hike would require a two-thirds supermajority and that is never easy.
Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, said she was very happy to see the governor propose a budget without tax increases, and thinks that part of the spending plan should hold up. She hasn’t studied all of the cuts Gregoire is proposing, but thinks the plan to freeze wages for state employees and teachers should survive.
Sen. Joe Zarelli, of Ridgefield and the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, called the budget a good starting point and thinks a wage freeze is “a gimme.”
“There’s no way you can consider giving people more when you’re looking at the cuts we’re considering,” Zarelli said.
The budget proposal “sticks to the principles we hoped for,” he added.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, thinks the time may be ripe to repeal some of the state’s hundreds of tax breaks. A tax break allows someone to not pay a share of their taxes, she said, and in light of the severity of the cuts, some of those past decisions should be revisited.
“Are they all more important than health care for the working poor?” she said.
Other lawmakers have expressed skepticism that there’s much revenue in doing away with old tax breaks. But Brown says the money could prove useful in saving critical parts of the social safety net, and Senate Democrats want to find other efficiencies in the budget in order to blunt the worst of the cuts.
Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, said everyone knew Gregoire would propose drastic cuts, and she wants to study those before talking about any tax increases, and give the public a chance to help determine what they can accept, and what they can’t.
“We really have to ask ourselves, ‘What kind of state do we want to live in?’” Prentice said. “As soon as we mention (a tax increase) all people will talk about is taxes.”
She also wants to look for “any creative way” to cut spending, such as cutting many of the advisory boards and commissions the state has. But even if all those bodies were eliminated, that would only be a drop in the bucket, Prentice said.
Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, agreed legislators and the public many need time to realize the magnitude of the cuts in health, social services and education programs being proposed.
“When it sinks in … that will be a wakeup call,” Ormsby said.