Rep. Jeannie Darneille took stock of the crowd at last week's hearing on an agency merger for state arts programs, museums, the state library and services for the blind.
“It’s a little bit daunting to look out at an audience of people who you know hate you,” Darneille, a Tacoma Democrat, said gingerly.
She might have been speaking for legislative budget writers. They could make more enemies Monday, when House Democrats expect to outline a budget that bridges a $5.3 billion shortfall without new taxes – and hold a public hearing on the plan the same day.
No one expects anything but cuts to public schools, colleges and the safety net that helps elderly, poor and disabled people with health needs – cuts that are $500 million deeper than the much-reviled plan Gov. Chris Gregoire suggested in December.
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But that scenario is unacceptable to a coalition of labor, health care and community-advocacy groups that plans a wave of protests starting Tuesday at the Capitol. And even lawmakers will have a hard time accepting all the cuts.
“It’s going to be daunting to get done on time,” Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown told reporters Friday, eyeing the scheduled adjournment of the 105-day session April 24.
Whatever the schedule, rallies of as many as 5,000 people will set a louder and more militant tone for lawmakers.
The State Labor Council and its coalition has 35 buses lined up and filled for Friday in what could be one of the largest gatherings in several years if their estimates hold true.
Service Employees International Union locals 775NW and 1199NW plan a “strike” against lawmakers Thursday that is causing some staffing concern at the Olympia-based Behavioral Health Resources agency, which provides mental health services.
Advocates want to see tax breaks erased, shrunk or temporarily suspended as a way to pay for the state’s fraying social safety net.
The state’s biggest exemptions include the ones for sales of food and prescription drugs, but those are not on the agenda, said Jeff Johnson, labor council president. Instead, targets include a tax exemption for mortgage interest earned by banks, sales taxes not charged on optional plastic surgeries, and favorable tax treatment given to owners of private jets.
Brown, a Spokane Democrat, was sympathetic. But she said there isn’t enough support to meet the voter-imposed requirement for supermajorities to raise taxes.
It’s possible lawmakers’ minds will change after budget proposals emerge, she said.
And they could avoid the supermajority requirement by asking voters to decide on tax increases.
Washington Federation of State Employees director Greg Devereux said the political environment has changed since the Wisconsin governor’s push to limit collective bargaining in that state. He said actions in Wisconsin and other states prove “there is a war on the middle class in this country,” and he believes public attitudes about closing corporate tax breaks are becoming more favorable.
Republicans are holding down the no-taxes fort along with Gregoire and many Democrats who had close calls in the November election. The GOP and business allies have not ruled out ending some tax breaks but are more willing to consider user fees to bring in more money.
Senate Republicans are “all over the board” on whether fees are appropriate, GOP leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla said.
But Hewitt and his House counterpart, Rep. Richard DeBolt of Chehalis, both expressed worries that lawmakers might raise fees only to see the money swept into the general fund, essentially turning them into taxes.
Dozens of dedicated accounts have been swept as lawmakers have grappled with budget shortfalls.
Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County plans to release his own alternative budget that bridges the entire gap without borrowing, issuing bonds, raiding special accounts or employing other “gimmicks.”
Alexander said he wants to eliminate the state’s Basic Heath Plan for low-income workers and the Disability Lifeline for people temporarily unable to work, and cut several other programs that he believes House budget chairman Ross Hunter is trying to spare.
“There’s five or six major issues that separate us in terms of principle and dollars,” he said.
The House GOP contends the programs are not affordable, while Sen. Brown and House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, see Basic Health and the Disability Lifeline as key parts of the safety net.
Hunter, D-Medina, has been working to line up support for his proposal. If they can’t win over any Republicans, Democratic leaders would need to persuade at least 50 of their 56 members to vote for a budget full of cuts that many can’t stand.
A House floor vote on the budget could come late in the week or on the weekend.
“I figure the first thing that will happen is each of us on the Ways and Means Committee will be besieged by people who want amendments to save their item. There is no way to do it without taking from somebody else,” Democratic Rep. Sam Hunt of Olympia predicted. “It’s going to be terrible. It’s going to be a hold-your-nose-and-vote” ordeal.
Hunt said he welcomes the protests urging more tax revenue, which he has backed all along.
“I say the more pressure, the better,” he said.
With so few apparent options, some lawmakers have begun pitching new versions of ideas rejected in the past. One idea is selling or leasing out operation of the state’s liquor-distribution system to a private, for-profit firm. Another is expanding tribal-style video slot machines into nontribal card rooms.
“We are goring vital programs. So if everything is on the table, then let us have a good debate whether an expansion of gaming is a viable option for us,” Rep. Chris Reykdal, a Tumwater Democrat, said after signing on to the gambling bill.
Moxee Republican Rep. David Taylor’s House Bill 2044 would let up to 65 private-sector house-banked card rooms – like those at Lacey’s Hawks Prairie or at minicasinos in Lakewood – install up to 200 video slot machines apiece.
Alexander said the proposal could expand jobs. Democrats including Rep. Kathy Haigh of Shelton and Steve Kirby of Tacoma also signed on. But Brown said the Senate budget proposal wouldn’t lean on new gambling revenue. There isn’t enough support in the Senate to achieve the super-majority it would take to expand gambling, she said.
In the Senate, both parties are trying to hash out a budget compromise that could come out a week after the House’s.
One sign of how difficult it could be for House Democrats to unite on a budget came Friday as lawmakers deadlocked on government-consolidation proposals.
A vote was delayed until Wednesday after Democrats in the state government committee chaired by Hunt couldn’t agree on whether to merge ethics and elections watchdogs, and history and arts agencies.
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688