September 27, 2011 in Region

Washington Dems explore election on tax hikes

By Mike Baker Associated Press
 

OLYMPIA — Democratic officials have been quietly exploring the logistics of a special election in February that could ask state voters to raise taxes to help fill another budget shortfall, according to documents released to The Associated Press under public records laws.

Staff members in the Legislature have gathered information on both the timing and costs of holding such an election, even as lawmakers say it’s premature to say whether it’s an option they will pursue. Advisers to Gov. Chris Gregoire are among those that have been looking at the logistics.

Democratic Sen. Ed Murray, who has openly suggested the idea of a tax package, said legislative staffers are making the inquiries so that lawmakers can understand the process if they decide to make such a pitch. Murray said it currently looks unlikely that a plan would be in place for a February election, saying that much more research needs to be done and lawmakers still need a broader agreement on finding $2 billion to balance the budget.

“There isn’t even a concept yet about what revenue would look like,” Murray said. “We can’t have a discussion about putting anything on the ballot until we have a discussion about what we end up cutting.”

Gregoire has called lawmakers back to Olympia for a budget-slashing session at the end of November, and she has said the focus will be on identifying cuts at this point in the process. The secretary of state’s office has told officials that a tax referendum bill would have to pass by Dec. 2 — just a few days into the special session Gregoire has called — in order to give officials enough time to prepare for a Feb. 14 election that is already scheduled, according to internal documents.

An election would cost about $6.6 million if it was aligned with the previously scheduled vote in February, according to secretary of state documents. It would cost about $8 million if it was done on its own.

Democratic Rep. Ross Hunter said there is clearly interest among members in his caucus to consider new ways to raise revenue because the potential set of cuts needed to reach $2 billion would be “daunting.” But he said the Legislature will still need to find $2 billion in potential cuts in case voters don’t approve the package.

Lawmakers managed about $4.6 billion in spending reductions earlier in this year, relying heavily on cuts to education, including teacher salaries. Gregoire has said education will face additional cuts in this budget round.

State voters last year repealed a tax on candy, gum, bottled water and pop shortly after lawmakers approved them, and they also rejected a proposal to tax the income of high earners. Voters also approved an initiative requiring a two-thirds majority to raise taxes, which essentially removed that option from the table because Republicans have vowed not to approve any tax increases.

Hunter said lawmakers need to show the public what impact the cuts would have without an increase in revenue.

“You’d want to believe the public would support it, otherwise you’re just wasting your time,” Hunter said.

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