State awaits gloomy budget news

THURSDAY, FEB. 19, 2009

OLYMPIA – Today’s the day.

After months of ever-worse budget news, lawmakers will today hear state forecasters’ best guess about how the treasury will fare over the next two years.

Will it be worse than the $5.7 billion shortfall that was expected last fall? Almost certainly. One lawmaker recently referred to that projection thought to be dreadful at the time as “the good old days.”

Will it be as bad as some House lawmakers have been bracing for: an $8.5 billion shortfall? Or even worse? We’ll find out at 4:30 p.m.

Whatever the number is will set the tone for how deep the budget cuts are going to be over the next two years.

In recent weeks, lawmakers intently watched the stimulus-bill machinations of Congress, hoping for a Hail Mary from Washington, D.C. But legislative leaders, notably Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, say that the federal plan inked Tuesday is nowhere near enough to bail out the states.

The money it includes for state budgets “is just not big enough to make up for the deep dive our state revenues have taken,” Brown wrote recently on her Senate blog.

Lawmakers recently passed a first round of early cuts for this budget year, but Brown has resisted calls from Gov. Chris Gregoire and Republicans to make deeper cuts quicker. She said she didn’t want to cut people off of health care or aid, for example, only to find out later that federal help or the forecast rendered those cuts unnecessary.

After today’s forecast, she wrote recently, “that’s when our conversation with the public about a positive direction forward will begin in earnest.”

What’s that mean?

Trying to gauge the public support for a tax increase to support critical programs, apparently. Unlike Gregoire, who pledged and delivered a no-new-taxes budget proposal, Brown has for months been hinting that the solution for the state’s deep budget woes is likely to include some tax increases. That, after all, is what’s happened in Olympia in every other economic downturn for the past 40 years.

House leaders have also been careful not to publicly rule out the possibility of tax increases. Whatever emerges, they say, it would almost certainly go to a statewide vote.

Brown says she’s convinced that voters, if shown the need, will support paying more. And it’s true that when convinced there’s a tangible benefit, voters in recent years have proven willing to pay more.

In late 2002, for example, they backed a gas and car sales tax hike to raise billions for transportation projects. They’ve also voted to make it easier for schools to raise property taxes.

Locally, voters in Spokane have increased their own taxes to pay for mental health treatment, and in central Puget Sound, as recently as December, they’ve done the same thing for rail and transportation projects.

Stay tuned.

Initiative filed to head off any support for atheists

On the heels of December’s bizarre statehouse battle over an atheist sign, a woman in Blaine has filed an initiative that would strip any public support for atheism. (December’s furor, the short form: Sign stolen. Recovered at radio station. Guarded by troopers. Prompts flurry of other requests. Among them: Festivus and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Enough, says governor.)

Proposed citizen’s initiative 1040 would ban the use of “public money or lands for anything that denies or attempts to refute the existence of a supreme ruler of the universe, including textbooks, instruction or research.”

She has until this summer to gather more than a quarter-million signatures.

As budget worsens, belt-tightening metaphor now extended to trousers

In the first of what will be several whacks at state spending, the state House and Senate last week approved millions of dollars in initial cuts.

“For those that say you want to cut more, just sit in your seats,” said House budget writer Rep. Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham. “You’ll have a chance.”

Speaking on the House floor, Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, managed to put a new spin on a much used metaphor this year: belt tightening.

“We’re going to have to go many, many, many notches further,” he warned. In fact, he said, lawmakers might have to “take our pants off and go back and purchase a pair that is about three sizes smaller.”

Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at richr@spokesman.com.

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