09 27 2016
  11:58 am  
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OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- Washington state lawmakers are feeling deficit deja vu.
A $2.6 billion deficit awaits them as they return to the state Capitol on Monday to convene a 60-day session, and it's the second straight year they've had to face making cuts to state programs.
One thing that's on the table this year that wasn't last year: taxes.
Gov. Chris Gregoire and Democratic leaders in the House and Senate haven't been shy about talking about the need for some type of increase, but haven't offered up specifics on what it will look like.
House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, says nothing is off the table, but said that fellow Democrats in her caucus don't want to do anything that would hurt the pocketbooks of people who are trying to hang onto their dollars in a tough economy. That could mean that across-the-board sales tax or property tax increases are unlikely.
She said that along with looking to do away with some tax exemptions -- so-called tax loopholes -- they're also exploring things like adding a sales tax to targeted products, like bottled water.
"We will not be taxing ourselves out of the whole $2.6 billion," Kessler said. "I believe that we'll be making more cuts than we'll be raising revenue."
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said that they would first look to try to save some money immediately by finding ways to make government operations more efficient. Any additional taxes put forth would be a "moral necessity" to protect people who are in danger of losing health care coverage, and to ensure that schools maintain a level of quality, she said.
"How do we create the kind of society that people in Washington want to live in, that they know their neighbors have what they need?" she asked.
Republicans said that they don't have an issue with some of the policy goals on issues like education.
"It's a matter of how you pay for it," said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.
Gregoire, who is expected to release a second part to her budget proposal next week, has said she'll seek about $700 million in new revenue to save some of the most critical programs, including the Basic Health Plan for the working poor, welfare for the disabled, and subsidies for rural schools, but about $1 billion would still need be cut.
Last year, the Democrat-controlled Legislature bridged a $9 billion deficit with major spending cuts and federal bailouts. They were hampered by the inability to raise taxes because of a voter-approved initiative that requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature on taxes. But because lawmakers are allowed to amend initiatives two years after they've passed, lawmakers won't have that obstacle this year.
Democrats insist that they won't go to the tax well immediately.
"We do want to make our cuts first, so that we're not leading with taxes," Kessler said.
At an annual legislative forum sponsored by The Associated Press, House Ways and Means Chairwoman Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, said she was open to major reforms, including privatization of government technology services, printing, and even the state monopoly on liquor sales.
Linville's talk of government reform was good news to at least one Republican.
"To me, that's the beginning of solving our problem," said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield. "If that's where we go, that's a great start."
Even though the budget will be the prime focus for lawmakers, they'll be weighing a variety of other measures, including public safety and education. About 300 bills already had been filed by the end of the week before session, and more were expected.
The most serious come in the wake of the deaths of police officers in the past few months.
Gov. Chris Gregoire and several law enforcement groups have said that they support the idea of a state constitutional amendment that would give judges more leeway to deny bail.
Maurice Clemmons was under supervision by the state Department of Corrections when authorities say he shot and killed four Lakewood officers at coffee shop before the start of their shifts in November.
Clemmons was shot and killed by police after a two-day manhunt.
One lawmaker already has a public hearing scheduled later this month to discuss the circumstances surrounding Clemmons, and why he was on the streets.
Several bills, including constitutional amendments on bail issues, as well as survivor benefits, have already been introduced.
___
On the Net:
Washington state Legislature: www.leg.wa.gov
Gov. Chris Gregoire: http://www.governor.wa.gov

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