OLYMPIA – Washington’s lawmakers Monday kicked off a high-pressure legislative session with prayers, a pledge and vows not to let today’s budget crisis eclipse tomorrow’s hopes.
“These may not be the easiest 105 days of our lives, but I think they can turn out to be our best,” said House Speaker Pro-tem Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver.
Early out of the gate: a “middle-class jobs package” that will be proposed by Senate Democrats today. Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said the plan is focused on creating jobs, particularly “green jobs.”
•Promotes more energy-efficient construction.
•Offers more apprenticeships and retraining in high-demand sectors.
•Includes public-works spending, including money for data lines, high-tech manufacturing and health care and clean energy.
•Aims to give local communities and businesses “new ways to finance local revitalization.”
The goal, Brown said, isn’t to pay people to dig holes and then fill them in while waiting for the recession to end. It’s to boost worker skills and emerge from the downturn with better roads, networks and workers.
Lawmakers face a daunting challenge: finding a way to bridge the $6 million gap between the state’s revenues over the next two years and what it would cost to maintain current services.
“Probably not since the ’20s and ’30s have we seen a situation like this” economy, Gregoire’s budget director, Victor Moore, told a House committee Monday.
Gov. Chris Gregoire, holding to a campaign promise not to raise taxes during the recession, has proposed deep budget cuts and layoffs. Legislative leaders vow to scrub the budget, but they’ve also hinted that they’d consider blunting the worst of the cuts with some tax increases. Such increases would likely have to be approved by voters, however.
Washington residents, particularly retirees looking at devastated mutual funds, can’t pay more, said Paul Locke, a citizen who spoke at the hearing.
“You’re going to have to start making real cuts,” he told lawmakers.
Democratic leaders, however, say they must avoid gutting the state’s future.
“We have to be very careful this year not to let a budget problem rob us of our vision and values,” said House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle. Lawmakers can shrink their hopes for the state, he said, “or we can keep our eyes on the horizon and direct our attention and resources to what is truly important.”
Everything in the $33 billion state budget is important to someone, however, and lawmakers will spend the next four months hashing out what to do.
“May you have the strength to stand by your principles and the humility to bend and compromise when necessary,” Rabbi Seth Goldstein, with Olympia’s Temple Beth Hatfiloh, told lawmakers in the House.
Republicans have criticized Gregoire and the Statehouse’s large Democratic majority for $8 billion in state budget increases over the past four years. Things wouldn’t be nearly so bad, they have said for months, if spending hadn’t risen so much during better times.
Now, with budget writers gathering in Olympia, Republicans say they want to help fix the problem.
“We can’t afford the games and the partisanship. Our problems are too big,” said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis. “Sometimes ideals are fantastic, but sometimes real solutions are necessary.”
In the Senate, Republican budget chief Joe Zarelli said the big question is whether the Legislature’s Democratic leaders will stick with a no-tax-hikes approach like Gregoire.
Brown and other Democrats have suggested that deep cuts would hurt even worse that a modest tax increase. Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, said he hoped to protect programs like state-subsidized health care for children.
“A recession is the wrong time to cut services to people who need help the most,” he said.
Chopp said he’d fight for education, children’s health care and the social safety net.
“The budget is not just a financial book of numbers,” he said. “It is a moral document of our values. Behind the acronyms in the budget, there are real people facing a real struggle for survival.”
Washington state Supreme Court justices also swore in new members of the Legislature. Locals included state Reps. Shelly Short, R-Addy; John Driscoll, D-Spokane; Kevin Parker, R-Spokane; and Matt Shea, R-Mead. County commissioners from half a dozen Eastern Washington counties will pick a replacement next week for Steve Hailey, R-Mesa, who recently died after battling colon cancer for a year.