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$5.7 billion budget deficit headlines this year's legislative session in Olympia

Washingtonians are weathering the economic recession that is currently gripping the nation far better than many of their countrymen.

Doom and gloom forecasts persist here however, chief among them a $5.7 billion Washington state budget shortfall on the immediate horizon. That has many lawmakers in Olympia scratching their heads, wondering how they will fill the gaps between incoming revenues and expenditures, most of which have already been approved.

For many of the legislators the picture is bleak...it's a my glass is half-empty mindset they'll take with them to Olympia when the State House and Senate convenes for the 105-day, 2009 session come next Monday.

But for the three men representing the Lower Yakima Valley in Olympia, they'll be heading over the Cascades in a different frame of mind. You might call it a my glass is half-full outlook.

And why not? The local trio -Sen. Jim Honeyford and Rep. Dan Newhouse, both of Sunnyside, as well as Rep. Bruce Chandler of Granger - point to the numbers that show Washington will rake in more money in tax revenues this year than ever before. The three men reason...it's simply a matter of spending within the state's means.

"You can't increase spending 15 percent each year and have revenue only growing by 5 percent," said Chandler, during a swing through the Valley this week to talk to local media members about the '09 legislative session.

In terms of working to develop a strong tax base through a strong economy, as well as working to reign in spending at the state level, Chandler said, "This is a unique opportunity."

All three politicians point out that this year both sides of the aisle, as well as the governor, head to Olympia knowing that there isn't enough revenue coming in to sustain the planned expenditures. Everyone knows, they say, that hard decisions will have to be made in preparing and adopting a balanced budget, something they could easily see not getting done by the end of the 105-day session.

If that's the case, the lawmakers know they'll get called back into a special session. "Wouldn't be surprised if we're celebrating the Fourth of July in Olympia this year," Honeyford grimaced.

Optimistic that their Republican party, currently in the minority in both the House and Senate, will be brought into the discussions, the three Lower Valley lawmakers see the '09 session as an opportunity to work towards building a strong economy. A strong economy, they say, is the key to getting the state back on its feet.

One idea currently being bandied about by the Democrats is to eliminate a business tax break for companies that purchase new machinery and equipment. That, says Honeyford, would be counter-productive to growing the economy.

"In Olympia, we need to do what we can to help businesses grow," Honeyford said. "As business grows, so do the jobs and along with that comes more revenue for the state."

Honeyford cautions that any proposals to come out of Olympia this year that would create jobs and work programs must be sustainable. "Creating something for the short-term is just going to put us back where we are today," he said.

With such a large deficit looming, it's inconceivable to think that major spending cuts aren't coming. Gov. Christine Gregoire, who during her re-election campaign this past fall vowed not to implement any nex taxes this year, has already suggested several cuts to existing programs, but they barely make a dent in the projected $5.7 billion shortfall.

Newhouse said he, Honeyford and Chandler "...are glad to hear the governor saying some of the things we've been saying for years.

"We can't tax our way out of this," Newhouse stressed.

The three local legislators say they are definitely not in favor of across-the-board spending cuts. "It's not a surgical way of doing it," said Newhouse.

Rather, programs need to be prioritized, taking care, all three men say, in not eliminating funds for the people who can't take care of themselves.

There are some programs already on the state books, said the three lawmakers, that need to be chopped. One such example they point out is the state's paid family leave program. The program was approved in Olympia, but as of yet hasn't been funded.

"It needs to be eliminated," said Honeyford, "or at the very least not funded again during this upcoming session."

As far as introducing any new legislation this year, Newhouse said it's generally understood by lawmakers not to introduce anything in 2009 that comes with a price tag.

That's not to say, however, that bills won't get reviewed.

Newhouse said he, Chandler and Honeyford are hopeful that the anti-gang legislation that was approved in 2008 will be re-addressed this year, either with stronger language that will make it easier for law enforcement agencies to get criminals off the streets or with funding that will give the police and courts more financial resources.

Honeyford noted, too, that he expects several pieces of legislation dealing with water issues to be discussed this year.

The three Lower Valley men were also quick to point out that they want to hear from their constituents while in Olympia.

"The correspondence we receive is appreciated," said Newhouse. "We look forward to the feedback, especially in a year like this one, when we'll be dealing with this large budget deficit."

Because the three lawmakers receive so many e-mails, they ask local residents to type in "15th District" in the subject line of each e-mail.

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