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Press corps needs tax details

Thu., March 5, 2009

OLYMPIA – With the legislative session half over today, lawmakers continue to be largely mum about whatever major budget cuts or tax increases they’re considering.

That’s drawn an unusual outcry from the dwindling Capitol press corps, many of whom are frustrated that lawmakers aren’t revealing more about their discussions.

Both House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown point to their first-round cuts. They recently passed bills trimming state spending by $300 million this year and offsetting another $300 million in cuts with federal dollars.

But those fixes are a far cry from the more than $8 billion shortfall. And there are persistent hints in Olympia that unions and other groups are trying to figure out which tax increases a recession-era public would most likely support. Legislative leaders, asked about this, say very little. And Brown, in particular, is unhappy that Capitol reporters keep asking about tax increases instead of writing about potential budget cuts.

The Tacoma News Tribune’s Joe Turner recently blasted majority Democrats in a blog post, writing that “Brown considers the press corps merely an extension of the Senate Democratic propaganda machine.”

“Now, I probably would write some of those stories but for one thing: They haven’t happened yet,” Turner continued. “What we have right now are lots and lots of folks predicting what will happen IF their particular program is cut. And Brown wants us to write those the-sky-is-falling stories. We in the Press Corps are supposed to soften you up. You voters. We’re supposed to write stories about how bad things are going to get if you, the voters, don’t agree to approve whatever tax package they put before you.”

Turner’s not the first to publicly voice frustration. Public radio’s Austin Jenkins also recently wrote in the online publication Crosscut that lawmakers “will speak in generalities and they’re telling the public to brace for the worst. But wringing any details out of them about what’s being considered behind closed doors and they do a lot of closed door meeting in Olympia is a fruitless exercise at this point.”

It’s a bizarre situation. Lawmakers particularly Senate Democrats are issuing a flurry of press releases, blog posts and online videos saying what an “awful,” “horrendous,” “devastating” budget crisis the state faces. And Brown’s clearly hoping to open a heart-to-heart dialogue with voters about cuts-versus-some-tax-increases. Then, when asked what they’re doing about it or even what they’re thinking about doing the answer from lawmakers is essentially “We’ll let you know what we decide.”

There are some legitimate reasons for waiting to make key budget decisions, such as a March 19 revenue forecast and an upcoming caseload forecast. But many reporters are skeptical that lawmakers, staring down the barrel of one of the worst state budget shortfalls in the nation, aren’t at least deep into discussions about what to do.

“The simplest answer is the Democrats are at a complete loss over what to do,” wrote Brad Shannon, political editor of the Olympian. They waited for the federal stimulus package for help, he suggests, only to discover that the flagging economy canceled out most of that new money.

What do we know? That in the Senate, the target number for budget cuts is 60 percent deeper than what Gov. Chris Gregoire proposed in December. Democrats would like to find a way to raise more money without worsening the finances of low-income people, which would seem to rule out a sales tax increase. And although lawmakers have said there are things they’ll try to protect, like stipends and health care for the unemployable, adult day health care, and children’s health coverage, they’ve said little about what major cuts are likely.

“We just have to do this one step at a time,” Brown said last week. “It’s a tough job. You want to do it right.”

Lawmakers also seem to be actively resisting reporters’ efforts to find out what they’re doing. At least three capitol reporters – I’m one of them – filed records requests back in January with the state’s tax agency. The idea: finding out what, if any, tax increases were being kicked around by the governor’s office and lawmakers.

The records involving the governor and her budget office were handed over promptly. They turned out to be routine inquiries. Nothing about tax hikes.

But the legislative records? Five weeks and three delays later, they’re still secret. State officials say they’re huddled with legislative staffers to decide if they really have to make those records public at all.

And a new SurveyUSA poll suggests that a tax increase will be an uphill fight. Some 70 percent of respondents said it would be a bad idea to raise taxes, and most were unmoved even if the new dollars went to things like children’s health care or smaller class sizes in schools.

Where should new money go? To health care, roads and bridges, those surveyed said. Schools, colleges, parks, and children’s health care all drew far less support.

A new cry in Olympia: Where’s Seattle’s money?

Every time I write about roads or gas tax, I can count on getting calls from Spokanites railing about how their dollars are going to build roads and bridges in Seattle. (There’s some truth to this, particularly after the most recent gas-tax hike, although the overall flow of the dollars is mostly from urban to rural areas.)

All of which made it particularly interesting to see lawmakers recently divvy up $341 million in federal stimulus dollars.

Two transportation committee chairwomen from Puget Sound – Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island and Rep. Judy Clibborn, D-Mercer Island – produced a plan that’s heavy on back-to-basics paving projects across the state. Much of the money would be spent on things like strengthening cable barriers or adding rumble strips to startle dozing drivers. And the projects tend to be in rural areas of the state.

Conspicuously absent: money for mega-projects in Seattle or Spokane. (Locally, it includes millions for asphalt work on U.S. 395 and millions more for Interstate 90.) The unhappy campers include Gregoire, who’d asked for money for two major Seattle projects, and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. Clibborn and Haugen faced tough questions last week about why more money wasn’t set aside for Seattle.

The resulting headlines: “Legislature snubs Seattle.” “State bypasses Seattle road projects.” And “Olympia to Seattle: Drop Dead.”

Richard Roesler can be reached at (360) 664-2598 or by e-mail at

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