From sea to shining sea, state governments face the same problem Washington does: We’re all dirt poor.
But that doesn’t mean the 105-day legislative session, starting Monday in Olympia, will be a yawn-inducing deliberation on arcane fiscal policy. In fact, it may be a bloodbath, overrun with deficit hawks, red ink and a veto pen.
But before Washington’s elected leaders swap platitudes of bipartisanship for the rhetoric of demagoguery, here’s a sneak peek at the important issues they’ll focus on for the next three or four months.
This spring, the stimulus will end. Nationwide, a spigot that gushed $160 billion in aid to states will dry up, leaving many governments in a difficult financial situation.
In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie faces a $10 billion deficit, even after slashing his state’s budget by 26 percent in 2010. In California, Gov. Jerry Brown faces a $28 billion gap.
In the last two years, 48 states have faced large budget shortfalls. For the fiscal year beginning last July, states’ gaps totaled $130 billion — and a similar number is expected in the next fiscal year.
So the $4.6 billion deficit in Washington state doesn’t look so bad.
But it is. Washington’s deficit amounts to $684.06 for every man, woman and child in the Evergreen State. This, inarguably, is the biggest issue facing legislators.
“The cuts are going to hurt no matter what,” says Andy Billig (D), who will be sworn in on Monday as a new representative for the 3rd District, which covers the core of Spokane. “We’re just going to have to do it in a way that causes the least possible pain.” When Gov. Chris Gregoire released her budget proposal last month, it came with some bad medicine. She slashed health, social service and education programs, dismantling institutions she had fought for in past years. She called for closing museums — including Spokane’s MAC — and canceling the 2012 presidential primary. She proposed higher college tuition and the elimination of all-day kindergarten classes.
“I hate my budget. I hate it because in some places I don’t even think it’s moral,” she said when she released the budget. “We have had to cut the unthinkable to prevent the unbearable.”
Billig agrees on the moral part. He’s one of many Democrats who have blanched at the governor’s cuts. This year, it’s Gregoire’s own party members who will fight back against gutting what have traditionally been Democratic programs.
“My priority in the budget is going to be protecting the most vulnerable. The top of my list is the Apple Health for Kids,” Billig says, referring to the program that provides health care to the state’s uninsured children. “It would be a huge backwards step for us if we cut it. That’s No. 1 for me.”
For Michael Baumgartner, a Republican who unseated Chris Marr in the 6th District Senate race, the biggest priority is getting rid of the budgetary smoke and mirrors.
“We’re actually going to have a record increase in revenue in the next biennium. A 16 percent increase, or $4.5 billion increase in revenue,” he says. “The problem is our expenditures are expected to outpace that” and grow by 20 percent, he says.
He puts most of the blame on public-sector workers and their cost-of-living pay raises, which he says constitute a “good portion” of the projected deficit. He also wants them to pay a higher percentage of their health care costs, something closer to 20 percent rather than the 15 percent they currently pay.
“We have to make the budget sustainable,” he says. “We can’t be in a budget crisis every two years.”
As a member of the Senate’s Ways and Means committee, Baumgartner will have a hand in trying to avoid that crisis.
BEYOND THE BUDGET
You probably won’t see many headlines about anything other than the budget, but there’s more to governance than gaps and shortfalls and deficits.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown would like to renew the Motion Picture Competitiveness Program. This program costs the state about $3.5 million a year, but a recent report to the Legislature showed that companies receiving the $8.4 million in incentives spent about $36 million in the state. The tax credit, of which Brown was a primary sponsor in 2006, is set to expire this year.
For his part, Billig is zeroing in on two programs: an environmental bill and a transportation package.
The first, a revision of a bill that passed in the Senate last year before dying in the House, will restrict the application of phosphorus on lawns. The Environmental Priorities Coalition (a group of 25 environmental organizations in the state) has made the bill one of its top four legislative priorities of the year. It’s the first time a bill emanating from Spokane has made their list.
“Phosphorus is not needed for most lawns. It’s needed in new lawns, so they’re allowed. Agriculture needs it” so there are exceptions for farmers, Billig says. “It’s an environmental priority for the entire state.”
As for his transportation package, Billig says it “isn’t going to be easy to do, but it’s important.”
As vice chair of the transportation committee, he hopes to craft a new way to generate revenue for transportation projects like the completion of the North Spokane Corridor and the creation of Spokane’s Central City Line — a trolley-like commuter line that could circulate between the University District, Kendall Yards and the hospitals.
“There are other ways [to generate revenue] better than the gas tax,” Billig says. “I remain open to the idea that there could be some creative solutions there, and gas tax could be part of it.”
Baumgartner says his main goal is “helping the state’s economy.” And part of that is ensuring the completion of a four-year medical school in Spokane.
“The challenge for that project is it would take a significant portion of the state’s available money for capital projects,” he says. “I think we can cross party lines for that one.”
UNDER THE RADAR
Some legislators aren’t letting the prospect of Olympian budget battles dissuade them from pursuing other interests. Here’s a breakdown of some of the year’s most interesting bills.
In the House, HB 1018 would change many sections of state law to “grant [bicyclists] all of the rights” of car drivers and regulate safe passing distances between cars and bikes. The bill was introduced by state Rep. Jamie Pedersen, a daily bike commuter in Seattle. “It’s astounding to me how many times people will whiz by me at 35 or 40 miles per hour, thinking that if they haven’t hit my handlebars, they’ve passed at a safe distance,” Pedersen told the Seattle P.I.
Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who also represents Seattle, has one bill in the works that would allow beer and wine tasting at farmers markets. Another — more controversial — bill would legalize the plethora of medical pot dispensaries that have sprung up across the state in the last few years.
Kohl-Welles has been the Legislature’s major proponent of medical marijuana and has made this bill something of a be-all-end-all for the drug. Aside from sanctioning dispensaries, she would make them tax-exempt, more strongly protect their owners and providers from prosecution, and allow pot to be grown in community gardens by designated providers or patients.
“It’s really a huge piece of legislation and quite complicated,” she told Seattle Weekly. “It’s something I’ve been working on for a very long time.”
Finally, Sen. Craig Pridemore (D-Vancouver) has filed a campaign-finance reform bill that would require political action committees, or PACs, to disclose their donors and would increase the penalties for violating campaign disclosure laws.
The bill is of particular interest because of a controversy over PAC transparency, which erupted during the 2010 general election. The battle resulted in Republican leadership demanding that Democrat Nick Harper, the senator-elect from Everett, not be sworn in on Monday.
Sen. Brown has rejected the Republican plea. “After last year’s session, in which the refrain about the ‘will of the people’ was heard on the Senate floor from nearly every member of your caucus,” she wrote to Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt on Tuesday, “I think you can ultimately agree that not seating a duly elected member of the Senate for political purposes is not a path that the Senate should pursue.”
Let the bloodbath begin.