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Lawmakers mixed on spending proposal

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 on Thursday.

If the plan holds up through a process that will stretch at least into April, 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 write their own 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.

Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, said she was happy to see the governor propose a budget without tax increases. She said she hasn’t studied all of the cuts Gregoire is proposing, but she thinks the plan to freeze wages for state employees and teachers will survive.

Sen. Joe Zarelli, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, called the budget a good starting point. He 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,” said Zarelli, of Ridgefield.

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 avoid paying part of their taxes, she said, and in light of the cuts, some breaks should be revisited.

“Are they all more important than health care for the working poor?” she said.

Other lawmakers have expressed skepticism that doing away with old tax breaks would generate much revenue. But Brown said the money could help save critical parts of the social safety net.

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. She wants to give the public a chance to help determine what cuts they can accept.

“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 state’s advisory boards and commissions. But even elimination of all those bodies would represent only a drop in the bucket, Prentice said.

Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, agreed that legislators and the public might need time to realize the magnitude of proposed cuts in health, social services and education programs.

“When it sinks in … that will be a wake-up call,” Ormsby said.

Jim Camden can be reached at (509) 459-5461 or jimc@spokesman.com.

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