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Washington lawmakers balk at cutting safety nets

 Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, talks to reporters as Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, looks on.  (Associated Press)
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, talks to reporters as Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, looks on. (Associated Press)

No tax hikes on agenda, except transportation

OLYMPIA – There’s no chance the Legislature will ask voters for a tax increase for anything – except maybe for highways and other transportation projects – legislative leaders said Tuesday.

But Democratic and Republican leaders of both chambers all balked at a proposal by Gov. Chris Gregoire to end two key programs for low-income residents, state-sponsored Basic Health coverage and payments to disabled people who aren’t able to work, known as the Disability Lifeline.

Appearing at a forum to preview the upcoming session, the four legislative leaders agreed they’d have to find ways to cut billions from the state’s general fund spending without raising taxes to fill some of the gap between expected revenues and the cost of state programs and salaries.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said there was a chance the Legislature could put a “transportation package” on the November ballot, asking voters for a tax increase to pay for major road and infrastructure projects. “Any details would obviously have to be worked out. I’d like to see the North-South Corridor as part of the projects.”

Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, was doubtful: “The state doesn’t have any money. It’s going to be difficult to get anything past the voters.”

All were opposed to Gregoire’s proposal to eliminate state-funded Basic Health and the Disability Lifeline.

“I don’t think it’s in our best interest to eliminate this,” House Speaker Frank Chopp said.

Hewitt agreed, saying the programs need some revisions, such as a reduction in benefit payments or tighter limits on eligibility, but were still needed to “catch the people at the bottom.” The state might consider making everyone reapply for the programs, as it did in 2003, which resulted in a 30 percent drop in participation because some recipients were no longer eligible.

“We’re going to look for an alternative to completely eliminating them,” Brown said.

Party leaders disagreed sharply on how big of a role cuts to state employee wages and benefits would play in budget discussions. Labor costs account for nearly three-fourths of the state budget, said Hewitt, so labor will have to be part of any solution.

State employees already have wage freezes and furloughs, Brown said. They may face more cuts, but “collective bargaining is not the fundamental cause of the recession or the economy we’re in,” she added.

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