Politics & Government

Hopes high for today's session

State lawmakers were preparing to return to Olympia this morning for a one-day special session, and hopes were high for a bipartisan vote to cut more than half of the $1.1 billion budget deficit that the government faces through June.

Leaders from both parties say some members will vote for the $588 million package of spending cuts and some won’t. But caucus leaders and committee chairs are more likely to vote yes, and leaders expect to finish work before Sunday.

“I don’t think it’s a package that any of the four caucuses would say was one that they’d want,” Republican Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County said Friday between committee meetings. He predicted that at least 20 minority Republicans would cross over to join Democrats in favor of the cuts.

The agreement would shrink but not eliminate the Basic Health Plan and shrink cash grants in the Disability Lifeline for people temporarily unable to work.

Gov. Chris Gregoire also is moving ahead on an additional $140 million in across-the-board cuts announced earlier in the year. That is far less than the $200 million Gregoire’s staff announced late Thursday, but budget spokesman Glenn Kuper said the cuts no longer include an end to Medicaid hospice care or Medicaid prescription drug coverage.

Human services advocate Nick Federici said he is “still concerned by the level of cuts” in human ser- vices. He said he knows health services cannot avoid cuts, but he and allies were looking closer at what the pending cuts would mean.

“One of the biggest cuts you’ll hear about tomorrow is cutting the (community health) clinics,” said outgoing Rep. Brendan Williams, DOlympia, who plans to vote against the agreement because it doesn’t go far enough to put the state on a sustainable footing through cuts and new revenues. “I think that cut is so bad they’ll have to buy it back the first week of the session (in January). It will be devastating.”

Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla has said he expects a number of Republicans will vote for the package, because it contains reductions they have advocated for.

“I’m confident the negotiators have talked to a lot of members before they put together this package,” said Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Thurston County, who said it is unlikely she would vote against the agreement.

“We’re going to have a hearing and have a discussion. So I’m going to listen to everybody,” Fraser said. “It’s hard to get enthusiastic about making cuts, but we know we have to make them. We have to get started.”

Fraser said the Legislature is subject to the cuts, too – about $3 million, according to the agreement. The Senate cuts include an end to a meal service in the Senate lunchroom, cuts in Senate members’ postage and printing allotments, fewer staffers, paid interns and pages, and fewer dues paid to national organizations that provide training and information to lawmakers, Fraser said.

Despite rumors that the budget agreements might not hold, outgoing House Ways and Means Chairwoman Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, said, “In my opinion, there will be the votes in the House Democratic Caucus.”

“The one thing that could blow it up is if all of a sudden, it is not bipartisan. I’m hoping the leaders can keep the caucuses together,” she said.

Linville lost her re-election bid in a recount last month and, despite her role as Ways and Means chairwoman, was not part of the team that negotiated the budget cuts. She said that if glitches are found in the agreement, returning lawmakers have a second chance to fix them when they start their regular, 105-day session Jan. 10.

Democratic Rep. Chris Hurst of Enumclaw said urgent action is needed, and any errors can be fixed soon. Democratic Rep. Kathy Haigh of Shelton also said she’ll vote for the deal , but she doesn’t like cuts to education.

Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon of Potlatch said he has voted for only two operating budgets – one in 2003, when Republicans held the Senate, and another in 1997. But he thinks he’ll vote for this one as a step toward downsizing government.

“I want to look at the details. I feel it’s pretty wellcrafted,” Sheldon said. “It’s a little heavy on the basic health and some of the other human services programs. I’d like to see stronger cuts to the agencies, but I think that will have to wait for the regular session.”

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com,  www.theolympian.com/politicsblog