State leaders see tighter coffer, bipartisan tilt
OLYMPIA – Washington politicians who had any doubt the public is in no mood for more taxes should have had that cleared up Tuesday. For the budget struggles ahead next year, voter sentiment is clear: Don’t ask us for more money, cut the budget.
Voters sank a proposal for a state income tax on the wealthy, struck down temporary taxes on soda, candy, bottled water and some processed foods, and reinstated a two-thirds supermajority for passing any new taxes.
“There’s no new revenue,” Gov. Chris Gregoire said Friday. “There’s now less revenue than before.”
The temporary taxes, passed by Democrats last spring to avoid deeper budget cuts, will come off on Dec. 2. That should slice about $55 million off what the state thought it would collect between December and July 1, and another $218 million off projected revenues for the 2011-’13 biennium.
But that’s a relatively small amount compared to the $4.8 billion gap between projected revenues for the next two years and the amount the state would need to pay for all the programs, policies and personnel it currently has.
To close that gap, Gregoire will prepare an all-cuts budget in the next month that will include what she calls “some pretty draconian cuts.” It may eliminate prescription drug coverage for Medicaid patients, dental and podiatrist coverage for adults on state health insurance, levy equalization for poorer school districts or even the state’s Basic Health plan. For legislators who object to the cuts, she’ll offer a simple challenge: “Give me an alternative.”
That alternative is not likely to include a tax hike, which would require two-thirds approval in both houses.
“I think the voters were clear: Don’t spend more money than you have,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla. “They didn’t just say it. They shouted it.”
Voters also defeated plans to “get government out of their lives,” turning down two ballot measures to end state control of liquor sales and another that would have added private insurance to the state’s industrial insurance program.
“It’s not clear to me that there was a message about what we did or did not do that led to the losses,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. “I think it’s a reflection of a tough economy. People want to focus on jobs, and they want government to be as responsive as possible.”
Democrats did buck the national trend of turning control over to Republicans and managed to avoid the huge switch of the last big GOP wave of 1994, said House Speaker Pro Tem Jeff Morris, D-Anacortes. But they face slimmer margins in controlling the two chambers. Several legislative races in Western Washington remain too close to call, but current results suggest the GOP will pick up at least seven seats in the House and four in the Senate.
Smaller majorities might force the Legislature into a more cooperative and bipartisan mode, Brown and Hewitt agreed.
“Narrow margins in the Senate are clearly the norm for most of the last 30 years,” Brown said. They force more cooperation because any major legislation takes agreement from both sides. “We’ll need to put a budget together with the support of both caucuses,” she added.
Hewitt is expecting more Republican input in the next two years than the last two, when they were in a 31-18 minority in the Senate and “relegated to sitting on the sidelines.”
“I think the public is better served,” he said. “There really hasn’t been much public debate.”
Republicans would like to begin that public debate as soon as possible.
On Friday, Hewitt and House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt delivered a letter to Gregoire, asking her to call a special session in early December to make some changes to her orders for an across-the-board budget cut of 6.3 percent to keep the state from running out of money before June 30, the end of this biennium. Under state law, the governor can’t pick and choose where reductions take place, nor can she order extra cuts to leave the state with enough money to carry over into the next two-year budget cycle.
“Waiting until January or later to shore up the 2009-’11 budget will only make our fiscal situation worse and require more and deeper cuts,” Hewitt and DeBolt wrote. Bringing the parties’ budget experts in the House and Senate together with the governor’s staff and holding a quick special session is a “responsible, proactive approach,” they argued.
Brown said it’s too early to say whether they can reach an agreement that would make a special session worth calling a month before the regular session starts.
That special session would be a lame-duck session with some members who have been voted out of office as well as others who have announced their retirement.
Gregoire said she won’t call a special session without an agreement that can move quickly through the Legislature on ways to reduce the budget with something other than across-the-board cuts. By law, a special session lasts 30 days unless the Legislature agrees to shorten it.
“I’m not going to have the Legislature sit around for 30 days and not accomplish anything,” she said.