Voter after voter went to the microphone this afternoon to ask questions of the Olympia-area's lawmakers in the 22nd Legislative District. A common theme in the largely Democratic town-hall crowd:
Yes to higher taxes or closing tax loopholes. No to cutting vital state services. And let voters decide on a tax increase in November, if not before.
About 150 people showed up for the two-hour question and answer session at Olympia's Garfield Elementary with Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser and Democratic Reps. Sam Hunt and Chris Reykdal. Many lawmakers across the state were fanning out to their home districts today to meet with constituents and get the public pulse.
"One thing I want to see is some guts from the Legislature. .. Things have been cut to the bone," said Michael Kennedy, a senior lecturer in biology at the University of Washington who lives in Thurston County and delivered some of the town hall's biggest verbal wallop.
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Kennedy said classes in introductory biology soared from 350 to 700, and "if you think that doesn't have an impact, you're nuts."
He and others urged lawmakers to show courage and push to move a tax proposal to the November ballot.
The three local Democrats lawmakers explained that passage of Tim Eyman's Initiative 1053 last fall makes it harder to close so-called tax loopholes or to raise taxes, because they now require a two-thirds vote for legislative approval.
And Hunt, who favors major tax reform that includes an income tax, said the Republican minorities in the House and Senate are refusing to consider revenue solutions to a budget gap estimated at $3.6 billion to $5.5 billion over the next two years.
That leaves one alternative: Sending a referendum to the November ballot to reduce or close specific tax exemptions. Lawmakers only need a simple majority – or 50-percent-plus-one – vote to do that.
Sen. Fraser suggested lawmakers could do it in June – after mentioning that a football stadium referendum went to the ballot earlier than November in the 1990s (of course, election costs were paid by Paul Allen). "Maybe that will be an idea (to copy). If we can do it for stadiums maybe we can do it for the rest of us," Fraser said.
Many topics came up in the two hours, and it wasn't just Democrats talking to Democrats in the solidly liberal 22nd district.
When one man, who identified himself as Terry Schrader, asked if anyone ever voted Republican, as much as a third of the audience raised hands.
And Joan Houchen, a former Republican state legislator who served Camano and Whidbey islands in the 10th district during 1979-83, reminded the Democratic lawmakers that there is a diversity of views in the 22nd.
"There are those of us who are not state employees. I would like to remind you, we need our representation, too," Houchen said.
Another woman stood to say she resented ”not having choice whether I have to join a union” as a condition of being a government employee (which is not exactly true). She got hooted when she added: "I also want to say, God bless Tim Eyman."
Many speakers did address pro-union and pro-worker themes that Fraser, Hunt and Reykdal typically support with gusto. Thurston County has a the most state employees of any in the state, and Reykdal called the 22nd "ground zero" for state budget cuts that have eliminated jobs, closed state facilities, reduced worker pay and increased workers' health-care costs.
Other topics that came: past and pending cuts to funds for elder care, health programs for the disabled and poor, higher education and public schools – and a new proposal to end a pay bonus for national-board certified teachers in K-12 public schools. Almost a dozen nationally certified teachers were on hand to express support for continuing bonus pay, although one said teacher said was willing to give up his bonus if disadvantaged high school students could be assured of affordable access to college.
Rep. Hunt said national-board certified teachers are facing financial hits of up to $12,000. And he asserted that the average state employee lucky to still have a job in 2012 will see net pay drop $4,500 to $5,500 once cuts, furloughs, higher medical costs are calculated.
Others also talked about wanting Capitol Lake to be turned into an estuary – which all three Democratic lawmakers oppose. Still others urged protection of funds for family planning and protection of environmental safeguards that city and county governments want to delay to save money. Mary Moore of the League of Women Voters asked the lawmakers not to raid the toxic-substances tax account that has been raided in recent sessions.
And one community-corrections officer, Damon Brown, talked about the dangers of his job. Brown said binding arbitration is needed for workers so they can raise safety concerns to a body that can order improvements.
I could go on and will.
The societal cost of tax breaks, assaults on worker rights, and the success of Republican-aligned initiative promoter Eyman also were were mentioned. Laurie Meeker, faculty union president at The Evergreen State College, said attacks on collective bargaining rights seen in Wisconsin and neighboring states might be one election cycle away in Washington.
And Rep. Reykdal warned they could happen in Washington.
A man identifying himself as Steve Franzen said the state needs more money to operate. He said natural resources programs have seen their share of the budget pie shrink from 3 percent to 1.5 percent over a number of yers, and he questioned the wisdom of consolidating resource agencies and eliminating independent governing boards.
"I don't support an all-cuts state budget. So I'm asking you, will you give me the choice a referendum or some kind of share-the-pain alternative?'' Franzen added. "By the way, like all red-blooded Americans I don't like paying taxes. But as responsible citizens we have to pay" for services.
Brian Tomlinson, a candidate for Olympia City Council, expressed other frustrations that seemed to go over well with the crowd.
"I just want to say, 'God damn Tim Eyman.' It just shows what one person can do with big business backing and big business money. What we need is a people's version of Tim Eyman!" Tomlinson said.