Revenue drop? Guesses range as high as $2 billion

The OlympianMarch 9, 2011 

The guessing is under way at the Capitol ahead of next week's quarterly revenue forecast: How low can it go? It's a game that gets played this time of year.

"I've heard the forecast is going to be a half-billion to $2 billion (down)," House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis ventured today [Wednesday] at a media briefing. "If it's $2 billion, I think we'll just crawl under a rock …"

I doubt that is where the Legislature's tax-raising tools are stashed. More likely it's where DeBolt and lawmakers of both parties keep keys to their bomb shelters. The quarterly forecast on March 17 will set limits for budget discussions during the rest of the legislative session that ends April 24.

Senate GOP Leader Mike Hewitt suggested a $500 million drop. Senate Ways and Means chairman Ed Murray, D-Seattle, offered $500 million but said it could be more.

The game is free to play, and Gov. Chris Gregoire got in, too. She said in a speech to prosecutors and law enforcement officers today that she is bracing for further revenue losses. If revenue falls another $1 billion, Gregoire said, she doesn't know what the state's response will be.

Less revenue for the July 2011 to June 2013 period would mean deeper cuts than what Democratic governor proposed in December. It was a budget Gregoire hated but said she needed to write – if she wanted to avoid tax increases in bridging a $4.6 billion shortfall.

But things are worse now. The budget shortfall is now estimated at $5 billion – before subtracting easy cuts like pay raises that teachers and government workers would have received in good years. And it is before lawmakers cut money allotted to public schools for class size reductions, before cutting school reform funds, and before actually cutting most state workers’ pay and hours by 3 percent.

"We talked about how big it could be. But nobody wants to utter the word," said Rep. Kathy Haigh, the Shelton Democrat who chairs the House Education Appropriations Committee. "Another $1 billion down is a possibility. It's hard to fathom … But we'll see on March 17."

A report on caseloads is due at 10 a.m. Friday, too.

Asked when the House might roll out its budget, Ways and Means Committee chairman Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said recently that it usually comes four to five days after the revenue forecast.

That would be March 21 or 22, a Monday or Tuesday. But budget rollouts tend to run late when the news is ugly.

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