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Eye On Olympia

One major hurdle down: House committee sides with Senate on rainy day fund…

For months, the Governor and Senate have been calling for an amendment to the state constitution to steer a little of the state's revenues into a hard-to-tap rainy day fund.

Virtually all lawmakers seem to agree that it's a good idea. You don't have to go back to far in history -- try three years -- to read about legislative hand-wringing and tooth-gnashing over billion-dollar-or-more budget shortfalls.

But House and Senate budget writers squared off this year over how much of a lockbox to build around the account. The Senate and Governor want to require a 60-percent vote of the Legislature, unless the economy sours or the governor declares an emergency, in which case a simple majority would be enough.

House Appropriations Chairwoman Helen Sommers, however, has argued throughout the session that there's no need for such a rigid restriction. Legislative common sense and self-restraint should be lockbox enough, she said.

On Monday, her committee flirted with the idea of a modified proposal that would have exempted from the 60-percent requirement money intended for some school programs. But after a long caucus with fellow Democrats behind closed doors, Sommers withdrew the amendment. The committee -- with Sommers and 10 other lawmakers voting no -- decided to go with the Senate version.

Here's what's proposed:

-1 percent of the state's general revenues would go into the fund every year. That's about $135 million a year, starting in fiscal year 2009.

-To tap it with a simple majority of the Legislature, forecasted job growth must be less than 1 percent,

-or the governor must declare an emergency to deal with a catastrophe "that necessitates government action to protect life or public safety."

-Otherwise, it takes a much-tougher 60 percent vote.

-Once the account exceeds 10 percent of state revenues -- something not expected to happen for about a decade at best -- any extra money would go into the state's school-construction fund.

Some lawmakers worry that the savings may be seen by citizens as a "surplus." That was part of the rallying cry behind Tim Eyman's Initiative 695: why are you paying hundreds of dollars in car-tab fees a year when government is sitting on billions?

Voters, not surprisingly, approved I-695.

"I think fiscal responsibility is great, but I don't think the public, in the end, is terribly supportive of this level of fiscal responsibility," said Rep. Ruth Kagi, D-Lake Forest Park.

Miscellanea: Best moment during Monday's Appropriations hearing: When Gov. Chris Gregoire's budget director, Victor Moore, prefaced the answer to a lawmaker's question with a light joke: "I'm proud to say I am not an economist..."

Unfortunately, the lawmaker in question happened to be Rep. Jim McIntire, D-Seattle, who is famously proud of being, yes, an economist.

As lawmakers roared with laughter, Moore, a longtime Appropriations staffer, stammered out an apology. But McIntire, who was among those laughing, waved it off as unnecessary.

Short takes and breaking news from the Washington Legislature and the state capital.