OLYMPIA – Some 7,000 protesters chanting, singing and marching through the Capitol to the strains of bagpipes were unable to convince the Legislature to veer from the path of an “all cuts” budget Friday.
A proposal to close most of the projected $5.1 billion gap in the state’s 2011-’13 operating budget with program cuts moved to the floor of the House of Representatives in the midafternoon while some demonstrators were still packing up from one of the biggest rallies at the Capitol in years.
That proposal comes from House Democrats, a group normally the most closely aligned with organized labor. House Republicans, who have an alternative budget with about $500 million more in cuts, did not try to swap their spending plan for the Democrats’ proposal when amendments were adopted.
The House can’t vote on the budget until today because of rules that require it to be available to the public – “lay on the bar” in legislative terms – for 24 hours.
But neither proposal has the thing protesters demanded during the rally and throughout the week: an end to some of the state’s many tax exemptions, or “loopholes,” for various businesses or industries.
The crowd, estimated by the Washington State Patrol at about 7,000, filled the steps of the Capitol, the Temple of Justice to the north, and the green spaces in between. They cheered as speakers invoked the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., who was killed when he went to Memphis, Tenn., to support a labor strike. They called for an end to national and state efforts to cut pay or benefits, and they applauded a special guest, one of 14 Wisconsin state senators who left that state to stall a bill to cut back on collective bargaining rights.
But mostly they shouted for the Legislature and Gov. Chris Gregoire to “put people first” and stop blaming workers for the deficit brought on by a recession.
“We did not lose $20 trillion. It was those geniuses on Wall Street,” Carol Dotlich, president of the Washington Federation of State Employees, told the crowd. “Make Wall Street and the robber barons pay their fair share.”
When the rally ended, several hundred went inside the Capitol and followed the Pierce County Fire Fighters Pipes and Drums as they marched around the hallways as the House was getting ready to introduce the budget legislation.
But even legislators who support the unions’ call for fewer cuts and an end to some tax exemptions say it almost certainly can’t happen this year. Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said a two-thirds majority, which voters reimposed last November as a requirement for any tax increase, “would be difficult to obtain.”
The Senate will announce its own budget on Tuesday evening, after the House has finished debating and voting on its spending plan. It, too, will be without a tax increase, Brown said at an afternoon press conference.
Brown talked with protesters before her press conference, and was almost in the Capitol when she stopped to talk to Debbie Sills, a social worker from Yakima, about tax exemptions and budget cuts.
Sills said later she was skeptical: “She claims she’s going to support us, but until something changes, I don’t believe it.”
Gary Swartz, a union machinist who lives in Spokane County near the Idaho border, said he expected to be told something similar when he met with other local lawmakers after the rally. But he and other Spokane-area machinists from the Triumph factory who came to the rally said it was still worth the trip over and a day’s pay lost. “We’ve got to keep the pressure on,” Swartz said.