Politics & Government

Democrats want comments on budget cuts

A coalition of left-leaning House Democrats plans a forum Sept. 17 in Olympia to hear the public reaction to state budget cuts taking place this year.

State Rep. Brendan Williams, who ran last year as a progressive Democrat in Olympia, grew frustrated in this year’s legislative session about colleagues’ unwillingness to consider tax increases. Lawmakers rejected a major revenue package in the face of budget cuts of more than $4 billion, including reductions to health care and education spending.

Williams, Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, and six other self-styled progressive lawmakers say they want residents to weigh in on the level of government services they are getting. Williams initially hoped to convene a debate about tax reform in the fall, but he has dropped that idea for now.

“I think you first have to understand the impacts of the no-new-taxes, all-cuts budget before you jump ahead to the necessity of changing our state’s tax policy,” he said. “I think our public has been pretty clear of late that they want to have a voice in these government processes that affect them.”

The event is timed to occur after the next state revenue forecast, which is earlier in the day Sept. 17. Revenue collections since the June forecast have run about $65 million short of predictions so far, but state revenue forecaster Arun Raha said last week that he thinks the recession is over and that there are signs of renewed economic activity.

Democrats control the House and Senate by near-supermajority levels that did not translate this year into votes for new revenues. The event sponsors are lawmakers who belong to the informal “Blue-Green Alliance,” which includes a few pro-environment, pro-labor Democrats willing to buck the House Democratic leadership on tax and policy matters.

Besides Williams and Dunshee, who serves as the chairman of the capital budget committee, they include Reps. Tami Green of Lakewood; Sherry Appleton of Poulsbo; Maralyn Chase of Shoreline; Bob Hasegawa of Seattle; Mark Miloscia of Federal Way; and Scott White of Seattle.

Williams said they plan a panel of budget stakeholders to talk about how they’ve been affected. These include “advocates for seniors, children and state services generally,” he said in an announcement.

Dunshee said he steered Williams away from talking about taxes, thinking that was a loser topic at this point. But he does want the public to weigh in on the level of services.

Rep. Gary Alexander, the ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said he thinks it’s healthy to have a discussion. But he questioned whether Democrats actually would engage business owners and others in the private sector, who, he says, scaled back their spending because of the economy.

Alexander last month issued a “ top 10” ideas list for improving the state’s budget outlook, including regulatory reform, more farming out of public-sector work to the private sector, and elimination of boards and commissions.

He also called for reorganizing the state’s service-delivery system, starting with the leviathan Department of Social and Health Services and the newly renamed Department of Commerce; for more use of technology and “distance learning” to fill higher-education needs; and beginning to fully fund basic education before the 2013-15 time frame laid out in the 2009 school-funding reform bill.

House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, says she welcomes the effort by Williams to gauge the effects of the spending cuts. But she said there just weren’t votes for major new revenues, and she thinks the Democrats could need to make even more cuts in January when they return to session.

“I think the more we can learn the better we will be in where we have to cut,” Kessler said Monday.

Williams and Dunshee say that depending on the outcome of their meeting, more forums might be scheduled around the state. The House Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee also plans hearings later in the month that explore some of the same questions about the effect of budget cuts.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688