Politics & Government

State lawmakers start session facing cuts or taxes

Washington's 147 state lawmakers returned Monday to Olympia, and the Democrat-controlled House and Senate were quickly greeted at the Capitol by conflicting messages about taxation and spending.

Anti-tax crusader Tim Eyman filed another initiative – seeking to re-enact a two-thirds vote requirement for tax increases that voters last approved in 2007. Democratic lawmakers, including Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, have signaled they intend to temporarily suspend or alter I-960 to allow easier action on revenue increases in the face of a projected $2.6 billion budget shortfall. They are allowed to do that with a simple majority because two years have gone by since the passage of I-960.

On the other side, activists with the Rebuilding Our Economic Future Coalition handed about 14,000 petition signatures to Gov. Chris Gregoire in the morning. The petitions ask her to seek new revenue to blunt some of the $1.7 billion in cuts that her first budget in early December spelled out.

Copies of the petitions later went to House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, and Brown, who both took the materials from the coalition, which represents close to 100 labor and human services groups.

“I think it’s a really important indication we’re going to have a dialogue (on revenue) this year. The governor, the speaker and the majority leader went out of their way on this first day of session to meet with us,” said Sandeep Kaushik, spokesman and leader for the coalition.

Despite the presence of activists on both sides of the tax divide and a computer breakdown that interfered with the Legislature’s e-mail messaging for more than two hours Monday morning, the session opening was short and quiet.

Speaker Chopp invoked the memory of police officers killed recently in the line of duty, and he reminded lawmakers that they have a moral obligation to look out for those less fortunate and in need.

“A basic question should always be asked: Is this particular tax incentive, exemption or loophole more important than funding for schools, health care, and public safety for our people?” he said.

Chopp said lawmakers should build on the state’s business climate, which he called one of the best in the country, by providing education opportunities, including job retraining. He also plugged an $850 million bond proposal for energy upgrades at schools that would create thousands of jobs.

House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt of Chehalis sounded a somber note and reported that one of his constituents – a business owner who last year took a second job to avoid laying off workers at his own business – “is still struggling.”

“Our budget is predicated on people working,” DeBolt said, adding that increases to the state’s tax burden would interfere with the economic recovery. “People fear the fact we are back in town right now. … We need to show them what we are doing to solve their problems at their kitchen tables.’’

Brown predicted that legislative activity could pick up quickly in the short session. She said Senate Democrats hope to act soon on government-streamlining bills, on reductions in state spending and other measures. Gregoire is expected to testify about her budget and tax plans this afternoon before the Senate Ways and Means Committee. And Gregoire told reporters she expects to lay out a “Book II” that details exactly which programs she wants to restore with new funding.

Gregoire has said she wants at least $700 million in new revenue and might need $1 billion. But she will identify only about $100 million of what she’d support, and she plans to reduce her requests by whatever amount of federal aid the state might receive. She said she would know soon if Congress acts on a relevant jobs bill and health reform before Jan. 20.

Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County said it felt good to be back with colleagues. Everyone wants the “good feelings to last as long as possible,” she said, but a cutoff looms in early February for bills to get out of committee.

“Of course, the budget … is the large black cloud hanging over us,” Fraser said.

“I’m calling it the drive-by session,” said Republican Sen. Dan Swecker, R-Rochester. “I think everybody is going to get clobbered one way or another.’’