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It's Grinding time 

Everything hits the wall in Olympia as services and spending are finalized

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Sausage-making machinery in the state Capitol will be cranked up to 11 as the Legislature screams into the final week of the session. Lawmakers are still trying to keep favored bills alive while attempting to balance the budget, close a nearly $3 billion shortfall and avoid going into overtime.

“It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” says Sen. Chris Marr (D-Spokane). He’s trying to juggle all these complicated tasks and be done by March 11. “Nobody is planning on taking any days off — including Sunday — until we wrap this up.”

This is the second year that state legislators have had to plaster over a significant crack in the general fund (which is $2.8 billion this time around). So many services were cut and employees laid off last year that both the House and the Senate — as well as Gov. Christine Gregoire — have uttered the dreaded T-word: taxes.

“This is the toughest budget I’ve been involved with in my time here,” says Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-Spokane), speaking of further program or spending cuts on top of last session’s. “It’s, like, ‘Which of your children do you save from the burning building?’ It certainly feels that way.”

Rep. John Driscoll (R-Spokane), now in his second year, agrees. “I didn’t run for office to face this kind of situation. I think every night that if we make the wrong move, people are going to die,” Driscoll says. “And even if we make the right move, vulnerable people are going to lose services.”

Three spending plans and three revenue plans — from the House, the Senate and the governor — have been released in the last week. The House and Gregoire have taken similar approaches to raising revenue by closing tax loopholes on a long list of topics, and taxing things like cigarettes (by an additional $1 a pack) and bottled water. The Senate plan differs by proposing a three-tenths of 1 percent increase in the sales tax for three years.

Caucus leaders and senior staff by this weekend will lock themselves into a room to begin grinding the three proposals into one. This is where pet projects, essential programs and revenue strategies are morphed and tweaked and distorted. Some disappear altogether.

Rep. Joe Schmick (R-Colfax) has his fingers crossed about the fate of Pine Lodge women’s prison in Medical Lake. Both the House and the governor are willing to close Pine Lodge. The Senate budget, thanks to the chops of Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown (D-Spokane) proposes keeping the prison open at 80-some beds (It  presently operates at 160-ish and has capacity for 451) to house minimum security female offenders from Eastern Washington.

Several handicappers tell The Inlander that the Senate version may prevail, but that the governor has suggested she could still close the facility by executive decree.

Driscoll is pulling for a pilot project that would strive to get more people back into the state’s Basic Health plan — cut dramatically last year — without enormous cost.

Sheila Collins, legislative director for Spokane, says the city is pulling for help on stormwater overflow issues to meet federal Clean Water Act limits.

Marr says funds for continued construction on the North-South freeway and Highway 195 south of Spokane appear to be safely salted away.

But everyone is going to hang on tight during these final days. “From here on out, we are going to be locked in the building hour after hour,” until the budget is balanced, Driscoll says.

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