Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Sunday, January 07, 2007

"Budget battle shaping up in Washington; Region's lawmakers say proposal promises too much"

Hang on to your wallets. The Rats are large and in charge in Olympia. Queen Christine has political debts to the unions to pay off to get what every first term governor wants: a second term. From today's Lewiston Tribune:
Putting the skids on a spending frenzy is the primary goal of the three Republicans representing Washington's 9th Legislative District.

The session begins Monday in Olympia, and Rep. Dave Buri of Colfax, Rep. Steve Hailey of Mesa and Sen. Mark Schoesler of Ritzville are gearing up for budget brawls.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed a two-year state budget of almost $30 billion. But that's just the beginning, said the 9th District lawmakers. Once the Senate and House weigh in, the number will probably climb.

"Christine left something under the Christmas tree for everybody," said Schoesler, referring to the governor's budget. "The problem is there is a Visa bill that is going to come due, and her carry-forward budget is more than $600 million short in the next biennium."

The state has about $1.8 billion in reserves, which is a good thing. The concern, said Buri, Schoesler and Hailey, is funding a bunch of new programs after the money dries up.

The proposed capital budget earmarks almost $4 billion in new projects, including $70 million for the Washington Wildlife and Recreation program, $107 million for economic development projects, and $73 million for four new regional skill centers. Washington skill centers are a part of the K-12 system, operating as an extension of high schools within a local region by providing students with job preparation skills.

All three elected officials from this region use the word "sustainability" when talking about the budget. They want to take the conservative approach to avoid a deficit down the road.

"I'm from agriculture," said political newcomer Hailey, "and I know every year is not a good year. We need to be saving money while we can."

Buri believes the hot housing market in the state has been the driving force behind the surplus, but he anticipates a cooling trend.

"If the revenue keeps going up, we'll probably be OK," Buri said. "But I don't like probably. It doesn't seem like the prudent thing to do."

Schoesler said it's an easy time to be governor, and an easy time to be the Ways and Means chairman.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton, is responsible for developing operating and capital budgets and tax and pension policies.

"Once you've given major increases to human services, health care and education, you're really the bad guy when you have to take them back," Schoesler said.

"Unfortunately, the state can't sustain that type of spending without tax increases."

The generous budget proposed by the Democratic governor is a political move, Schoesler said, and an opportunity for Gregoire to "buy votes."

"It's her last budget before an election," Buri said. "The easiest way to make friends is to help people get what they think is important, and that usually costs money."

A sustainable budget is especially important in the 9th District because of Washington State University and Eastern Washington University, Schoesler said. When times get tough, higher education takes the cut.

"People don't want to take money away from people in wheelchairs with oxygen bottles, and K-12 is protected by the constitution much more so than higher ed. That's why stability is so important in budgeting."

The lawmakers from this region support funding for higher education, public safety and K-12 education.

"We want to make sure the bad guys are off the streets, K-12 education works, and we have a future in higher education," Schoesler said. "A lot of the proposed programs are nice and well intended, but we have to make sure the core functions of state government are fully funded first."

Buri said there are a couple things he likes about the governor's budget, including a constitutionally protected rainy-day fund that will be hard to tap.

Gregoire's initial plan calls for setting aside $262 million. Each year after, the fund would receive automatic deposits of 1 percent of the state's annual general revenue, which is about $150 million a year.

The account could only be tapped by a three-fifths vote of the Legislature. In case of a natural disaster, or if a state of emergency has been declared, the money could be available with a simple majority vote.

"It would take 60 percent of the votes to get access to that money," Buri said. "I think that's a great idea, and I applaud the governor for moving forward with that."

Schoesler and Hailey also support the rainy-day fund and said they hope to see it on the 2007 general election ballot.

"I trust the voters of this state to make the right decision next November," Schoesler said.

In addition, Buri supports a proposed freeze on community college tuition, but he would like to see it extended to WSU and EWU for two years.

"Right now our middle-income kids are the ones who are getting squeezed. The super wealthy can afford the extra 7 percent, and if you are from a struggling family, there are lots of good programs and help available."

Buri predicts the Washington Assessment of Student Learning test will be a hot topic in the education world. The governor, the superintendent of public instruction and the state Board of Education are all recommending the math portion of the standardized test be delayed as a graduation requirement until 2011.

Without the delay, many students risk not graduating on time, starting in 2008. The recommendation now goes before the state Legislature, and Buri believes it will pass.

"It's not a Republican-Democrat issue. People on both sides of the aisle realize there are some challenges in this area," Buri said. "The challenge is trying to find a way to keep standards and accountability high, while the kids are getting the math skills they need to be successful."

Hailey said he's looking forward to his first session, which is scheduled for 105 days. "I'm one of three Republican freshmen and 11 Democratic freshmen. I get sworn in Monday at noon, and my first committee meeting starts at 3 p.m."

He is serving on Transportation, House Agriculture and Rural Economic Development, and the Environmental Health committees.

"The health care item is an issue we heard about everywhere we went in the 9th District," Hailey said. "It's not an easy problem to solve, but we need to work diligently to help the constituents in our area afford health care."

Buri is excited about being elected as a floor leader by the Republicans. "It puts me in a leadership role, and I take that responsibility seriously," he said. "It's a real honor."

He also serves on Appropriations, Higher Education, and Rules committees.

Schoesler is the ranking minority member on the Agriculture and Rural Economic Development Committee. He serves on Higher Education, Ways and Means, and Financial Institutions and Insurance committees.

He said there isn't one big controversy looming over this year's session. "Besides the budget, we haven't seen any other issue step forward as much as we have in other years."


April E. Coggins said...

"Besides the budget, we haven't seen any other issue step forward as much as we have in other years."
I have a suggestion, how about taking a look at the SEPA rules? It seems pretty straightforward to me that making business development easier will raise tax revenues.

Tom Forbes said...

April, unfortunately the 2-1 margin by which I-933 lost will only embolden the Democrats to believe that Washington residents want more environmental regulations, not less.