March 26, 2009 in Washington Voices

Bracing for budget unveiling

Richard Roesler
 

OLYMPIA – Brace yourself for some turbulence.

Soon – perhaps as early as Monday – the state Senate will unveil its budget plan for the next two years. The House of Representatives will quickly do the same. And then the shouting will commence.

One of the strange things about this year’s legislative session has been the seeming disconnect between lawmakers, who’ve struggled to find adjectives bad enough to describe the state’s budget woes, and the real people who will soon find out firsthand.

That’s partly on purpose. Olympia is a wonkish fishbowl and echo chamber, and it’s hard to make hard budget choices with interest groups screaming at you. The budget decisions are largely made behind closed doors, then “rolled out” for the public to see.

It’s also because, for much of this process, there’s been the prospect of a bailout just over the horizon. There was hoped-for federal help, which is turning out to be less than some lawmakers had hoped.

And there’s also the prospect of a voter-approved tax hike to undo the worst of the cuts. But that seems to be turning into a struggle. The online publication Crosscut recently reported that three major unions helping draft a tax proposal for voters have pulled out of the effort, apparently feeling that it didn’t go far enough.

Even Gov. Chris Gregoire said recently that lawmakers seem to have no agreement on what, if any, tax plan to send to voters. Asked Monday by reporters if she’d support it, Gregoire said she met with top lawmakers Friday, “and they couldn’t tell me what ‘it’ is.”

And any tax brings problems. Tax cigarettes more? Tax liquor more?

“That won’t bring in very much money. It just won’t,” said Gregoire. And if the taxes are too high, it would likely spur a black market.

What else?

“I don’t think it can be a tax on property,” she said. “I don’t think it can be a (business) tax. … That leaves you with a sales tax.”

But sales taxes fall heavily on the poor, who spend virtually all their money. And with consumer confidence at record lows, people are already reluctant to spend, Gregoire said.

“There’s no easy fix here,” she said.

Complicating matters, Gregoire has started floating another approach: asking voters to pay for millions of dollars in bonds. Much of the money would be used to renovate public buildings – particularly schools – to make them more energy efficient. It would also help pay for technology upgrades so that education won’t be behind the curve as the economy recovers. And it would create jobs now.

That raises the prospect of voters being asked to pay for two new things at the same time. Would that confuse them, and maybe torpedo both plans?

Gregoire says no. Voters are used to voting on school construction bonds and operating levies, she said, and are sophisticated enough to know the difference.

‘The Spokane Moms’ remain in the game

Last year, local young mothers went to bat in Olympia to win more state dollars for school libraries. They proved to be savvy grassroots lobbyists, and succeeded against pretty long odds.

Now, the same group is trying to put some meat on skeletal bills aimed at revamping school funding. After a year of work, a small group of advocates and lawmakers had proposed sweeping changes in how teachers are paid and evaluated and what the state pays for.

But some groups – notably the state teachers’ union – balked at the overhaul. And key lawmakers said that a recession with a $9 billion state deficit isn’t the time to commit the state to billions of dollars in new spending.

“There is no money now,” said Gregoire. Yes, she said, the state needs to change what it considers basic education (and thus pays for), but she said there’s no sense in doing it now while the state’s still trying to dig its way out of a budget hole.

“I don’t believe you move forward now with putting something on the books when you don’t have any money to pay for it,” she said.

Undeterred, Spokane’s Lisa Layera Brunkan and Susan McBurney have gotten thousands of signatures in an online petition (to find it, Google “Kids Can’t Wait” and Washington).

“With 2 million parents in the state, we can do this!!!” they wrote in a recent e-mail to supporters.

An ally for the public works department: foes of bottled water

Gov. Gregoire on Monday announced $38 million in proposed federal dollars for about two dozen drinking-water projects, including a couple in Ferry and Pend Oreille counties.

Normally, such grants are little-noticed except by public works officials and local folks who no longer have rusty or boiled water to drink. These are not the sorts of things that have people chanting on the Capitol steps.

Now they do. The nationwide “Think Outside the Bottle” campaign came to Olympia this week to urge Gregoire to push for yet more federal drinking water dollars. Why? Because good drinking water from the tap means fewer bottled water bottles clogging landfills. The group also wants the state to stop buying bottled water. And it’s tired of seeing all those little plastic bottles sitting beside government officials at meetings.

“When our public officials are drinking bottled water themselves, it really sends a contradictory message,” said the group’s Carolyn Auwaerter.

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


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