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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spin Control: Budget plans have lawmakers boxed in

OLYMPIA – There is much talk in the capital these days about needing to agree on “the box,” which may be confusing to the general public.

This is not the box of which one is often told to think outside. Nor is it the box, which, full of rocks, someone may be described as being dumber than. It cannot be described as bigger or smaller than one for bread.

Legislative budgeteers are jammed up trying to agree on the size of this box, which isn’t really a box at all, but a sum of money which makes up the amount the state will spend on a wide array of programs for two years starting on July 1.

It’s an inapt metaphor for the 21st century, for the state couldn’t keep its money in a box of whatever size, because most of it isn’t in paper currency but digitally represented by 0s and 1s in computers somewhere. But budget writers are no more likely to stop using it than Gov. Jay Inslee is to stop telling them to focus like a laser beam or Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler is to stop saying he’s an optimist who views the glass as half full. While we can only wonder about the strength of the laser or the contents of the glass, it may be helpful to know a bit about the box that’s not really a box.

It is, in round figures, around $38 billion of our tax money. It got a little bigger, in theory, last week by the economists who peer into their crystal balls and prognosticate how much money the state will collect over the next two years. That educated guess is based on projecting all the state’s current laws, rules and regulations on taxes and fees into the future, adding or subtracting things like housing starts and job growth, car sales and gas prices.

The dispute over the box involves each side of the debate tinkering with those laws, rules and regulations, and a general disagreement on how to arrive at it. House Democrats have proposed adding more taxes; Senate Republicans have proposed moving some money around from other boxes and dumping it into the big general fund box. That gives them different totals.

House Democrats want to start by determining what the state needs, then finding the money to pay for it. Senate Republicans want to start by settling on how much the state has, then figuring how to divvy that up.

So if you can’t agree on some very basic things about how much you have, it’s almost impossible to reach an agreement on how to spend it. That’s why the Legislature finds itself in a box, and will need a second special session declared sometime this week.

Is an extra 30 days enough time to find their way out of the box? Check box A if you think yes, box B for no or box C for maybe.

Kate McCaslin leaving

Former Spokane County Commissioner Kate McCaslin, who was a force in local politics even before she spent two terms on the county board, is leaving for points east.

McCaslin is trading her spot at the top of the Inland Pacific Chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors for a similar post at the helm of the Keystone Chapter of the ABC in south central Pennsylvania. It’s a bigger chapter, in a much more populous region, and while McCaslin said leaving Spokane, where she’s lived since 1966, will be bittersweet, she felt it was time to “seize the moment.”

She has, in her own words, been involved in “a lot of campaigns for a lot of years” for candidates and causes and in local and state GOP offices. A fiscal conservative, she worked to defeat the Children’s Initiative in 1989, a proposed sales tax increase for education, which, she reminded me last week, is when we first met.

A couple years later, she signed on to manage a campaign to replace Spokane’s aging Coliseum, an effort many thought quixotic because previous efforts had failed four times in six years. Next time you catch a concert or a game in the Arena, it’s due in part to the campaign McCaslin shaped to convince voters the time and the price were right.

In 1996, she defeated incumbent Commissioner Steve Hasson, a fellow Republican, in the primary, easily won the general and went on to serve two terms. For the last 10 years she’s been president of the local ABC, which keeps her politically active.

Her opinion was often sought on local, state or national political happenings, because she generally knew what was going on and didn’t pull punches. “I’m always good for a good quote,” she agreed.

Coming this week

Tuesday-Thursday: Expect some action on changes to state law needed to pass an operating budget. There’s no budget deal, but there may be a few things that both sides agree need changing. They may also agree how to spend the current gas taxes before the first special session ends sometime Thursday.

Friday: Start of a second special session, which Inslee says he’ll call to start the day after the first one ends.

Jim Camden is the Olympia bureau chief, covering the Legislature and state government, and also is a political columnist and blogger for Spin Control. He can be reached at