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Wielding The Axe 

by George Howland, Jr.


& quot;We're marching on Baghdad, & quot; quipped state Senate Majority Leader Jim West, R-Spokane, as the GOP won another battle in its war on taxes last week. Democrats admit their troops are badly divided, but still predict victory in their effort to save hundreds of millions in funding for health care and education.


On Friday, the state Senate's Republicans, led by Ways and Means Chair Dino Rossi, R-Issaquah, picked up four Democratic votes to bolster their slim senate majority and passed a no-new-taxes budget 28-20. Rossi closed a $2.6 billion deficit to propose a $22.8 billion two-year budget without any general tax increases. The proposal now goes to the state House that is narrowly controlled, 52-46, by the Democrats.


Advocacy groups and labor unions immediately began to howl, pointing out the unkindest cuts in the Republican budget--providing 76,000 fewer low-income people (including 46,000 children) with health insurance, stopping prenatal care for undocumented immigrants, reducing the state workforce by 2,300, suspending popular initiatives that mandated lower class sizes and higher teacher pay, and freezing pay for most state workers.


Ironically Gov. Gary Locke, who had released his own no-new-taxes budget last year, joined in the outcry against the Republicans' proposal, saying "I'm troubled by deep cuts in health programs for children." Republicans chortled watching Locke wrestle with the no-new-taxes genie that he himself let out of the bottle with his December budget. GOP leaders pointed out that while they cut children's health programs more deeply than Locke, the Republicans restored $150 million that the governor had cut from services for those who are mentally ill, developmentally disabled or in nursing homes.


The Republicans' success in passing a budget was unexpected. Before the legislative session began, pundits and politicians predicted that the Senate Republicans would be unable to hold their caucus together to slash education and health care by hundreds of millions of dollars. Rossi did it the old-fashioned way -- one vote at a time. He took the governor's template and then found the specific programs that mattered to the individual senators whose votes he needed.


Consider a couple of bipartisan examples. State Senator Don Carlson, R-Vancouver, is a moderate who has indicated he would support a temporary increase in the sales tax to solve the current fiscal crisis. Carlson, however, voted for Rossi's budget, saying it "protects Washington's scholars." He specifically cited engineering and technology education programs in southwest Washington. State Senator Marilyn Rasmussen, D-Eatonville, another moderate, elicited a promise from Rossi that that the governor's cuts to the "Readiness to Learn" program that links education with other human service providers would be restored.


"Dino is a star," says West. "He's willing to talk to anyone, anytime."


Both Rasmussen and Carlson, however, said they did not expect Rossi's budget to be the last one they voted on during this legislative session. While the House will vote on a budget next, most legislators expect a conference committee between the two chambers to eventually produce a compromise proposal that will require a second vote from both the House and the Senate.


Olympia's Democratic leaders, who are among the Legislature's most liberal members, are counting on moderates of both parties to eventually support a budget that increases taxes by $500-700 million and cuts up to $2 billion.


Senate Minority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, says Locke will join Democratic leaders from the House and Senate in proposing new taxes soon. But will their troops follow them?


Republican leader West predicts not. "They can't get there," he says. "They have too many people who ran as New Democrats."


House Finance Chair Jeff Gombosky, D-Spokane, admits Gov. Locke's earlier push for a no-new-taxes budget has left many in his caucus "sensitive" about supporting new taxes. He also believes it's a result of the growth of Democrats representing suburban areas that are socially liberal but fiscally conservative. Yet he believes the resistance should not be overstated. "There isn't a whole lot of division" among Democrats on taxes, he says. "I see support for some new revenue -- $600-700 million."


House Majority Whip Sharon Tomiko Santos, D-Seattle, is more cautious. She says the Democrats are a divided house. There are those like herself who support comprehensive tax reform (code for an income tax) and others who believe "it would be silly to raise any taxes right now." Santos asks rhetorically, "Are there the votes in my caucus to get out of here with some sort of revenue enhancement? There might be."


New taxes are not the only hang-up. The Senate's Brown admits that other issues are producing sharp divisions among Democrats that might lead to defections. She confirms that hot spots include the so-called "dirty fill" bill that would overturn the standards set by the state Pollution Control Hearings Board for dirt used in the construction of the Port of Seattle's third runway at Sea-Tac airport, the closure of the state-run Fircrest for the developmentally disabled in suburban Puget Sound, and even a bill that would loosen regulations on where manufactured homes can be sited.


Even if the Democrats do come up with enough votes to support $700 million in new revenues, it isn't even half a loaf. The last serious deficit the state faced was a $1.4 billion gap in 1993. That year, half the deficit was closed with new taxes and half with cuts. This year, if everything goes the Democrats way, less than one-third of the deficit will come from tax increases. There is no better evidence of how successfully Tim Eyman's anti-tax initiatives have altered Washington's political landscape.





Publication date: 04/10/03
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