Key issues of 2003 Wash. legislative session


Associated Press
King 5 News

Olympia, WA - A gas-tax hike, expansion of gambling and dozens of other hot-button issues are piled high on Washington state lawmakers' desks, but one overshadows all the rest: a record $2.4 billion budget gap.

Here's a guide to key issues of the 2003 Washington legislative session.

BUDGET—State government will have about $24 billion to spend on education and other state services over the next two years. But there's a $2.4 billion gap between that revenue and estimated costs of services that must be covered by cuts, tax and fee increases, or some combination.

Gov. Gary Locke was the first to release a budget—a no-new-taxes plan that cuts $2.1 billion from general government and $275 million from a separate Health Services Account. On the block: class-size reduction money, pay increases for teachers, state employee pay increases, social and health programs, and state-subsidized health insurance for 60,000 people.

NEVER MIND THE VOTERS—The Legislature is considering Locke's plan to temporarily suspend three voter-approved initiatives, mandating annual teacher raises, smaller class sizes, and more slots in the state's Basic Health Program. Locke wants to freeze teacher salaries and class-size reduction, both mandated by initiatives passed in 2000. The Basic Health Plan enhancement came with a tobacco tax increase to pay for it. Locke wants to use the money to prop up a reduced version of the current program.

Meanwhile, lawmakers will likely try to overturn the ban on most animal trapping enacted by voters in 2000, and one lawmaker has proposed capping automatic increases in the minimum wage mandated by voters in 1998.

HEALTH CARE—The Basic Health Plan—state subsidized health coverage for the working poor—faces major budget cuts. So do optional services provided to the poor under Medicaid—such as vision, dental and hearing care. All told, the state provides health care to roughly one in five Washingtonians. But much of that coverage is vulnerable to budget cuts this year.

GAMBLING—Part of the budget solution may be expansion of gambling. Non-tribal interests want permission to offer the same slot-machine-like games that tribes can, in exchange for contributing perhaps $200 million in taxes to the state coffers. Leaders say this plan may not get the necessary votes. Other new gambling, such as state-owned video poker and 24-hour Keno games like those in Oregon, may be considered.

EDUCATION—Education politics will take center stage early as thousands of union teachers—angry at Locke's proposal to freeze their automatic raises—descend on Olympia on Tuesday to rally for higher pay. Meanwhile, state school chief Terry Bergeson wants the state's standardized tests made somewhat easier, and the new federal education reform bill—with its tough testing requirement and sanctions for failing schools—looms over the whole issue.

TRANSPORTATION—Just two months after voters trashed a $7.7 billion revenue proposal for easing the state's traffic congestion, legislators and Locke are considering a less grandiose follow up plan. Some advocates have talked about a 3- or 4-cent-per-gallon increase in the 23-cent gasoline tax, perhaps coupled with a small excise tax on cars.

CRIME—Legislators are considering Locke's plan for early release of some drug offenders and other ways of postpone $250 million in construction costs for a new prison. Bills have been submitted to ban "up-skirt" photography and to allow prosecutors to seek murder convictions in assault cases that result in the victim's death.

PRESCRIPTION DRUGS—A bill aimed at reining in the state's prescription drug costs died in the House last year after passing the Senate. With drug costs skyrocketing and the budget in crisis, look for a similar proposal this year. But a new Republican majority in the Senate could make its prospects dim. Doctors, pharmacists, patient advocates and labor unions backed the proposal. But it died after fierce lobbying from pharmaceutical companies, venture capitalists, biotechnology firms and the Association of Washington Business.

MEDICAL MALPRACTICE—Doctors and insurance companies will likely push for caps on malpractice judgments. They argue that big judgments are driving insurance costs so high that doctors are being forced out of business, especially in high risk areas such as delivering babies. Opponents—especially trial lawyers—argue that insurance companies are using the doctors as an excuse to raise premiums so they can reduce stock market losses.

UNEMPLOYMENT TAXES—The Legislature will have to deal with Referendum 53, which overturned last year's new law on unemployment taxes—or maybe not. It depends on what the Supreme Court decides. Last year lawmakers overhauled the system of unemployment taxes paid by businesses, in an attempt to make the system more fair. The building industry, which would have to pay more taxes under the new system, put the law on the ballot and voters overturned it. Now the state Supreme Court will decide whether the referendum was constitutional. If they let the voters' decision stand, the Legislature starts again—trying to balance the needs of the builders, other businesses and laid-off workers who get benefits. The builders and many Republicans would like to see different reforms in the system.

Resource Links

Washington State Legislature

Wash. Gov. Gary Locke


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