OLYMPIA - Closing the gap on Washington state's nearly $3 billion budget shortfall with new taxes will be, as 15th District Senator Jim Honeyford of Sunnyside puts it, "...like trying to push a string uphill."
Honeyford and the rest of the state's legislators gathered in Olympia yesterday for the start of the 2010 session. At the top of the agenda, all agree, is trying to close a deficit in the 2010-11 budget that currently is projected at $2.6 billion. That number continues to spiral upwards, however.
Gov. Christine Gregoire in early December intimated that the budget she'll release this month in all likelihood will include a request for tax increases. Right now, say Honeyford and 15th District Representatives Bruce Chandler and David Taylor, Gregoire doesn't have the votes to get any new taxes approved, despite the Democrats controlling the House, Senate and the governor's mansion.
The three 15th District lawmakers, all Republicans, also believe that Gregoire's threat last month to eliminate levy equalization funds was simply that...a threat. Levy equalization funds are what school districts on the east side of the state count on to keep pace with the richer, west side school districts.
"Proposing to do away with levy equalization funding was the governor's way to scare communities into accepting new taxes," said Honeyford.
He explained that wiping out levy equalization funds would undoubtedly result in a court challenge, one that the state would be hard pressed to win.
As bleak as the financial picture is, the 15th District legislators all agree that the time is ripe for change.
"It's a great opportunity to shape the future of the Yakima Valley and the state," said Chandler (R-Granger). "It's an opportunity to make some real progress."
Taylor (R-Moxee) echoed his comments. "It's a time for innovation...to think outside the box," he said.
Fixing the budget problems, say state Republicans, starts with Washington state demonstrating that it wants a healthy business community.
Taylor said that means eliminating red tape and costly regulations that stifle economic growth. Legislators, he added, have to develop an economic climate that retains the businesses that are already here and attracts new employers.
"We have to have an economy that is growing," said Taylor. "Without that, our problems aren't going to go away."
Legislation that will be introduced by state Republicans that goes hand-in-hand with their business philosophy includes reforming the workers compensation insurance system so that it's not a drain on employers. Currently, the workers comp system has the second highest cost per employee and the third highest benefit package in the nation.
Other new legislation that will be introduced this month, says the GOP, also builds on the positive reforms to the state's unemployment insurance system to ensure the system is fair for both employers and employees. Presently, Washington's unemployment insurance tax rates are the second highest in the U.S. and offer the fifth highest benefits in the nation.
There will also be legislation that is introduced, say Republicans, that begins the process of streamlining state agencies to be more customer-service oriented, rather than adversarial to employers.
Republicans point out, too, that Washington has the highest minimum wage in the nation, set at $8.55 per hour.
The three 15th District lawmakers sigh slowly and shake their heads when queried about Gregoire's request for more federal money from the Obama Administration in an attempt to bridge the $2.6 billion budget shortfall. The stimulus money the state received from the federal government in 2009, they all point out, came with strings attached.
"We took one-time money for long term obligations," said Chandler, noting that any more gifts from Washington D.C. will only sink the state further into debt.
"It's always foolish to take a mortgage for a hot dog," Chandler quipped.
In terms of balancing the 2010-11 budget with new taxes, the three local legislators say that's not an option. They leave the door slightly ajar, however, intimating that if push comes to shove, any vote for a new tax would have to be earmarked strictly for building local communities, not for expanding government.
"We have to protect the sick and elderly," said Honeyford, noting that under no circumstances would he cast any vote that left those segments of the population unprotected.