Legislature heads into final days with budgets, taxes at forefront
Just days before the Legislature's scheduled March 11 adjournment, lawmakers are finalizing the state's operating, capital and transportation budgets, and working to close a $2.7 billion shortfall in the operating budget, which pays for the state's daily functions.
Last Tuesday, majority House and Senate Democrats unveiled their individual operating budget proposals.
The Senate plan would raise $918 million in new revenue with a statewide sales tax increase of three-tenths of a cent, a dollar increase in the cigarette tax and closure of tax exemptions. Senate Democrats are also counting on $583 million in federal stimulus money. They would shift $498 million from dedicated accounts, including emptying the “rainy day fund.” Budget reductions would make up $838 million.
“The public doesn't want us to put our schools, our colleges and universities, and our environment at risk,” said Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Bellevue, vice chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. “There's only so far you can cut before you get into that danger zone.”
The House Democrat plan would cut less than the Senate — about $653 million — and rely on $857 million in tax increases.
As many as 77 revenue bills have been proposed that, if combined, would increase taxes and fees by $11.46 billion in the $30.5 billion operating budget during 2011-12. Gov. Chris Gregoire has also proposed raising nearly $760 million through various tax increases, including soda pop, candy and gum, cigarettes and fuel.
To clear the way for tax increases, the governor signed a measure that suspends Initiative 960 and the requirement that the Legislature has a two-thirds approval to raise taxes. Democrats now only need a simple majority, without Republican votes, to increase taxes.
Defending the House Democrat proposal, Rep. Kelli Linville, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, discussed developing a compassionate spending plan.
“Our challenge is to create a balanced budget in a time of severe economic distress,” said Linville, D-Bellingham. “The distress is more than economic. It's personal to the thousands of families, workers and business owners who are struggling to balance their own books.”
House and Senate Republicans believe tax increases would further hurt struggling businesses, families and the unemployed.
“Citizens and employers should not have to bail out state government overspending with new taxes. Rather than go straight to raising taxes, state government should be looking at serious reforms and more efficient ways to deliver needed services,” said Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.
“This budget increases taxes more than it cuts costs. Majority leaders are refusing to embrace any type of reasonable government reforms, using one-time money from the federal government, and stealing money from dedicated accounts like the capital budget,” said Rep. Gary Alexander, R-Olympia, ranking Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee. “This large package of tax increases amounts to a 'poison pill' for our economy and jobs.”
To view the budget proposals, go to: https://houserepublicans.wa.gov/current-issues/budget-proposals. Citizens interested in voicing their opinions on the proposals may use the toll-free legislative hotline: 1-800-562-6000.