OLYMPIA – Most years when the Legislature goes home, the winners and losers are pretty obvious. You count the scars and tote up the pork.
This year, everyone has scars and the Lege wasn’t cutting on a fat hog, so the final judgment may wait at least until November, when voters decide whether half the Senate and the whole House should be rehired.
But after the session lurched to its close early Tuesday morning, some folks are better or worse off than they were when it started in January with all the yada-yada about bipartisan cooperation.
Bipartisanship was a clear loser. Democrats had such big majorities in both chambers that the real fight was among their factions rather than a Republican/Democrat struggle.
The “business moderate” wing of the Democratic Party, which would include Spokane Sen. Chris Marr and Rep. John Driscoll, argued for more cuts and fewer tax hikes. They lost. They consistently voted against the budgets, but the budgets passed. Republican opponents might not be able to pound them quite so hard this fall, but the biz D’s will still have to work to distance themselves from the rest of the pack if voters are torqued.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, a Spokane member of the progressive/ liberal wing, didn’t get the type of taxes and level of budget cuts she wanted, particularly a bump in the sales tax. But she did block some things she really hated, like the removal of the sales tax exemption for out-of-state shoppers. Border communities like Spokane fared no worse than anyone else, taxwise. But no better, either.
Republicans didn’t win any budget or tax fights; they didn’t have the numbers on their side. They get points for staying on message: Reform government, cut spending, don’t raise taxes. But their complaint that Democrats never listened to any of their reforms is somewhat undercut by the fact that they never produced a full alternative budget that would show the public what they would slice from the budget to avoid tax increases. If they had to put a nickel in the general fund every time they used the term “will of the people,” the budget would be balanced without new taxes.
Thirsty people lost big time. If you drink soda pop or some beers or water out of a bottle, you’re going to pay more taxes. If you switch to microbrews, you’ll avoid the tax, but the bottle or pint probably will cost you more just because it’s generally more expensive.
To avoid a new tax and kill some brain cells, you’ll have to switch to wine or the hard stuff. A smart marketer at some bar might try a tax-based drink menu for the tea party crowd.
People with a sweet tooth are also losers. Along with the extra 2 cents per can of pop, you’ll pay sales tax whenever you buy a pack of gum or candy bar, unless it has a cookie center, which might make it exempt as a “food.” Pity the poor cashier who has to explain the difference between a Kit Kat and a Snickers for tax purposes.
The public was a loser, at least the public that wanted to weigh in on the final tax package that appeared on the last day of the special session. After spending much of the previous 28 days in backroom discussions about what mix of tax hikes was acceptable to a bare minimum in the House and Senate, Democratic tax leaders rather imperiously released a take-it-or-leave-it plan in a “conference” committee and insisted there was really no need to hold public hearings because everything had been discussed in one form or another at some point. No real reason to wait a full day before voting; not like anyone really needs to read it, let alone study it line by line.
The Legislature is so much more open than it was in the bad old days, they insisted, when things really were done in secret. (Apparently in the old days a person needed to have a secret decoder ring to decipher the package and say the secret word before voting – that’s about the only way this year’s budget could have been more secret.)
Voters lost the automatic right to approve or reject those taxes. They’ll get a chance to make the tax on bottled water permanent because the Legislature wants to use it as long-term funding for bonds to make schools more energy efficient. And they could get to vote on eight different tax increases if initiative promoter Tim Eyman can get enough signatures on his various ballot proposals.
So the big winner of the session? Political reporters, who are guaranteed full employment through the general election. Thanks, Lege. We owe ya, big time.