Budget zealots buck no-new-tax mindset
12/21/02 4:33 PM
OLYMPIA, WA(AP) -- Washington lawmakers face a $2.4 billion budget hole -- and yet legions of lobbyists and unpaid advocates are pounding on the Legislature's door, asking for more, more, more.
As Gov. Gary Locke and a number of legislators explore the possibility of a cut-cut-cut solution without new general taxes, the holiday wish lists are relentless and as pricey as any that Santa might face:
--School forces want to preserve initiatives that mandate teacher pay raises and smaller class sizes. Pricetag for the next two years: $450 million. Advocates are also asking for add-ons of more than $1 billion.
--Colleges, backed by two former governors, are pleading for more construction and operating money, while students are hoping to restrain tuition increases.
--Poverty activists want to shield their clients from cuts, and suggest that bleak times actually mean that additional resources are needed for prevention, child care and the whole array of "safety net" programs that have sprung up since the Great Society.
--Greens want more, not less, money spent on environmental protection, conservation and other natural resource concerns.
--State employees, fearing a pay freeze that could last three years, are making their case for salaries and hoping to minimize layoffs.
--Health-care advocates likewise are fighting cutbacks and lobbying for broader coverage, especially for children.
--Transportation folks are asking lawmakers to cough up billions for congestion-relief.
The list goes on.
"It's insatiable," says House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam.
Pressure politics isn't always real subtle: An estimated 5,000 teachers are marching on Olympia on Jan. 14, the second day of the legislative session, and the same day erstwhile enemy Locke gives his suck-it-up State of the State Address. "Day of Action" events are also set for Spokane and Tri-Cities.
The seeming disconnect -- pleading for more money during tough times -- isn't really unusual, just more noticeable this year because of the huge budget hole. Lawmakers are loath to publicly criticize the long lines of people with their hands out, but privately, they grumble. A lot.
------ THE BACKSTORY...
For months, Locke and legislators have been warning that the state is spiraling into a projected deficit of more than $2 billion for the coming two-year budget cycle. That's roughly 10 percent of the budget.
In any year, the state budget is the focus on hundreds of policy debates that advocates want to influence. Real programs for real people -- from public education and parks to health care and college -- are on the line. So, too, are taxes, fees and tuition -- pocketbook concerns for a tax-averse citizenry.
When the pie is cut, the interest groups want to be at the table, defending their share or trying to bake a bigger pie.
In the upcoming legislative session, the budget picture is even more in flux and the stakes higher than ever:
--The state treasury is hemorrhaging red ink and big cutbacks are
a foregone conclusion.
--Locke and legislators are showing little stomach for taxes, which used to be the solution of first resort.
--Locke has reshuffled the deck by suggesting that state government rethink its priorities and drop some of its functions. The dropees are apoplectic.
All of this means advocates feel they have to be effective -- and loud -- as decisions are made.
------ HOW ADVOCATES SEE IT...
Interest groups say advocacy is a year-in, year-out mission and that they can't shut up just because times are tough and legislators are having a bad-hair session.
"We will be out in full force," says anti-poverty activist Tony Lee. "We will be energetic because we have no choice when we see the increased demand on human services. It isn't like building roads or buildings, where you can postpone the expense. Here we're talking about the basics, like eating and having a roof over your head and having basic health care."
State school chief Terry Bergeson says education forces must be more vigorous than ever in pushing their case, both in Olympia and to the patrons back home.
"It's a constant struggle" and advocates shouldn't apologize for being bold and even pesky, she believes. She says school forces should start building the public and legislative backing for a tax hike.
"You can't let the kids down. You can't let the teachers down. We have a double crisis -- a financial crisis and a crisis of confidence in our ability to go all the way to the (education reform) goal we have committed to."
Charles Hasse, president of the Washington Education Association, says union activists have "a sense of passion, but also tremendous respect for the tough circumstances fellow Washingtonians are in."
The state Constitution requires ample funding for education, not rising and falling with the economy, he says. "We owe it to students, in good times and bad, to be there."
Stylistically, the demands will be carefully put, he says. "You won't see anger or militant demands, just a sense of `Let's work together to find a way to move forward."' Health care advocates have called on average citizens to help with the lobbying, starting with a phone call to state legislative hot line.
College presidents, with the help of former Govs. Dan Evans and Booth Gardner, are trying to get alumni and community leaders involved in the struggle for more dollars for higher education, both on the operating side and for construction.
State employee unions are trying to minimize the impact on their members, but insist that part of their message is concern for state clients who'll be affected.
------ HOW OLYMPIA SEES IT...
Legislators and the governor and his budget office see the constant drumbeat of money requests as both irritating and understandable.
"We know what we can afford and what we can't," but interest groups are perfectly welcome to make their case, House leader Kessler says. "Part of it is that they are just doing their job. They get paid to do that.
"But too often they go down their own narrow lane and I wish
everyone would look at the big picture. I think they get it, but they
don't want to tell their constituents about reality.
"They're just looking at their own little backyard."
Locke, who has been writing budgets as a House member or governor for 20 years, says he doesn't mind advocates who want a bigger piece of the pie. But he, like many legislators, wants to know where the money gets cut someplace else -- or where the public support is for the tax increase suggestions.
"If people feel we have not allocated enough to a key area of government responsibility, then they're going to have to tell us which area they're going to take the money from," Locke says. "We're facing a shortfall of $2 billion and there's no amount of sin taxes or general tax increases that could make up that shortfall."
"We just can't do it all."
------ David Ammons is the AP's state political writer and has covered
the statehouse since
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