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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington has hefty agenda, but financial concerns top list

Washington’s Legislature starts Monday with a single-mindedness even some of its most senior members have never seen.

Across party lines, and between the chambers, among freshmen and veterans, few will dispute the 105-day session’s top priority.

“In my 18 years, this is probably the most single-focused session: on the budget,” said Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, who serves as the Senate Republican floor leader.

“Everybody’s top priority is the budget,” agreed Democrat Andy Billig, who’ll be sworn in Monday to a House seat representing central Spokane’s 3rd District.

Legislators and other state leaders may have other things they’d like to see accomplished, if the Legislature can fit it in.

Gov. Chris Gregoire wants to streamline state government, revamp the state’s entire approach to education, revise workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance systems, and for good measure set up a new government entity to run the Puget Sound ferries.

Attorney General Rob McKenna would like the state to be tougher on gangs, less willing to seize property under eminent domain, and less vexed by inmates filing public records requests.

Secretary of State Sam Reed would like to move the state primary up by two weeks and require that all ballots be in the hands of county elections officials by 8 p.m. on Election Day, rather than simply mailed by that day.

But if nothing focuses the mind like a hanging in the morning, nothing focuses the Legislature’s attention like a $4.6 billion budget gap and a realization that all the easy outs have been taken. That’s the estimated difference between the money expected to come in over the next two years and the amount needed to pay for all the programs and salaries now on the books.

From Republicans, there will be much talk of making the budget “sustainable.”

“We need better predictability so we’re not having, every year, another budget crisis,” said Mike Baumgartner, who’ll be sworn in Monday to a Senate seat in Spokane’s 6th District.

To that end, Baumgartner and other Republicans are talking about streamlining state government and shrinking the number of state employees. Republican Matt Shea, who is starting his second term in the House from Spokane Valley’s 4th District, said it’s time to look at consolidating state agencies.

“Getting the budget under control is a priority,” Shea said. “The other clear priority is jobs.”

Republicans aren’t likely to get an argument from Democrats on the need to increase jobs in the state but could get a fight over how to do it. Shea sums up the GOP approach as “get government out of the way of our small business so they can create jobs.”

Billig said Democrats will be trying to protect the way government helps create jobs: “Our way out of this economy is jobs. To help the economy, we need good transportation, schools and higher education.”

If all the state’s programs are going to be scrutinized, all the state’s tax exemptions should be as well, Billig said. “A lot of tax exemptions are good – they’re investments that have a multiplier effect (on the economy). But these programs have a multiplier effect, too.”

But eliminating a program will take a simple majority vote. Eliminating a tax break will require a two-thirds vote; it’s considered a tax increase, and voters last year reinstated the supermajority requirement for tax increases.

Democrats couldn’t muster a supermajority for any major tax issue last year, even though they had a nearly 2-to-1 majority in each chamber. This year their majorities are narrowed to 27-22 in the Senate and 57-41 in the House, and the working majorities of Democrats likely to support leadership on fiscal issues are smaller.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, of Spokane, said Senate Democrats believe the Legislature needs a responsible budget for the next two years while keeping an eye on the state it’s creating for the next 20 years. She told a legislative preview session last week that the Legislature needed to cut the budget responsibly while finding a way to invest in the future.

Democrats and Republicans alike signaled at that preview that they’ll fight Gregoire’s plan to eliminate state-sponsored Basic Health coverage for all low-income residents, and temporary payments to disabled people known as the Disability Lifeline.

As the budget slowly works its way through committee hearings, legislators from the Spokane area may look for money to start a four-year medical school near downtown, have garbage-generated power declared renewable energy or limit phosphorus use on residential lawns. Those from northeastern Washington may look for money to replace the Keller ferry; those from southeastern Washington will look to protect agriculture and state universities. Newly returned Rep. John Ahern will look for tougher penalties for drunken drivers and keep the state from requiring car owners to buy new license plates every seven years.

But for most of the next 105 days, important state policy will seem to adhere to Deep Throat’s admonition on Watergate: It will follow the money.

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