Democrats scurry for new taxes - Extra session inevitable as
parties butt heads
OLYMPIA, WA - 4/23/03 _ In statehouse hallways and behind closed doors, House Democrats are putting the squeeze on their rank-and-file lawmakers, trying to get them to vote for hundreds of millions of dollars in new taxes.
"They're changing things by the hour over there, trying to get votes," said Rep. Don Cox, R-Colfax.
And the clock's ticking, with the legislative session slated to end Sunday. Many lawmakers say that at least one extra session -- at a cost of about $17,000 per day -- is now all but inevitable.
"I don't see any way around it," said Rep. Barry Sehlin, R-Oak Harbor. "Look at all that's got to be done."
Washington's government writes an operating budget every two years. There are two competing plans battling it out right now.
Republicans, who control the state Senate, are backing a no-new-taxes version that would cut children's health care, prenatal care for illegal immigrants, and skip cost-of-living increases for most teachers and state workers.
Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, want cost-of-living increases for teachers and most state workers, and $2.07-an-hour raises for tens of thousands of low-paid in-home health aides. The House plan also raises state college tuition 5 percent -- about half what the Senate's proposing.
To pay for those things, however, House budget writers need $650million in new taxes and other revenue. Among the targets: cigarettes, liquor, candy and gum.
Some House Democrats are balking.
The plan that would have brought in the most money -- raising the state sales tax from 6.5 percent to 6.7 percent -- is now dead.
"The sales tax (increase) is gone," House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said. "We don't have the votes for that."
"Some people are choking on another 50-cent (per pack) bump up for cigarettes," Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane, said. "Especially for Spokane and Vancouver, do you think people are not going to go over the border?"
In private meetings, Democrats are trying to agree on alternatives to the sales tax hike. One oft-mentioned possibility: revoking some business tax breaks.
Democrats, Wood said, are trying hard to avoid the "nightmare scenario" -- the House Republican minority and Democratic defectors stampeding over House Speaker Frank Chopp and agreeing with the no-new-taxes budget written by Senate Republicans.
Wood said he expected to hear a lot this year from citizens who supported some tax increases instead of deep social service cuts.
"I was hoping for it," he said. "Even after all the publicity the cuts got, I haven't seen any real outcry. The opposite has happened. It's been about two-to-one `How dare you' (raise taxes)."
To keep the Democrats' budget alive, Spokane Rep. Jeff Gombosky and other Democratic leaders are fishing around for other taxes most Democrats can agree on. It doesn't help, though, that Democratic unity was bruised Friday night in a bitter feud over a proposed third runway at SeaTac Airport. At least one Democratic lawmaker was in tears; another quit his leadership position in protest.
Gombosky said he thinks the damage to Democratic unity won't last long.
"Those sort of (local) issues, they don't really leave lasting, hard feelings," he said. "You've got some upset people. But for the most part, people are pulling together."
He's the point man on any new taxes because he chairs the House taxation committee. And tension over budgets and taxes is normal, he said.
"It's going fine," he said. "Issues related to taxation are pretty much the third rail of American politics. It's a dicey issue, but it's an important issue."
Among the alternative taxes being eyed:
•$80 million in public utility tax exemptions for trucking. These include a New Deal-era break that allows truckers to pay less tax than rail shippers, Gombosky said, and an exemption for the in-state portion of interstate hauls.
•A proposed 1.5 percent to 2.5percent boost in the state's business tax on legal services. This, however, is faltering, Gombosky said, partly because Gov. Gary Locke doesn't like it.
Republicans, although many now expect an extra session, seem happy to let the Democrats struggle.
"Obviously, someone in there (the Democratic meeting room) is having some consternation, saying `I don't want to be a tax-and-spend liberal,"' said Rep. Brad Benson, R-Spokane. "It's nice to see they're having trouble getting 50 votes to raise taxes."
If Sunday ends with no budget, some Republicans plan to simply go home and wait.
"How do you explain to the public that we would just sit here, twiddling our thumbs?" asked Rep. Lynn Schindler, R-Spokane Valley. "I intend to clean house Monday and drive home. There's nothing I can do here to help."
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