No answers to state budget woes

Eastside business leaders came looking for answers last week to the state’s budget woes as they met over breakfast with area legislators. Unfortunately, answers were short in coming.

“We have no idea what’s going to happen with the budget,” Rep. Ross Hunter (D-Medina) told the gathering of East King County Chambers of Commerce.

The state is on a roller coaster ride, Hunter said, and it has yet to hit the bottom where “you get pushed into your seat.”

Chambers represented included Bellevue, Bothell, Issaquah, Maple Valley-Black Diamond, Newcastle, Redmond, Renton, Sammamish, Snoqualmie Valley and Woodinville.

The 105-day session of the Legislature begins Tuesday, Jan. 13 and with it comes the problem of dealing with a projected budget deficit of about $5.7 billion. That number is only an educated guess; Hunter said it will get worse.

He was joined on a panel by Sens. Rodney Tom (D-Medina) and Fred Jarrett (D-Mercer Island), and Reps. Glenn Anderson (R-Fall City), Larry Springer (D-Kirkland), Roger Goodman (D-Kirkland) and Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island).

Gov. Chris Gregoire has written “a budget for all of us to hate,” Goodman said.

The last time the Legislature faced making major budget cuts was in 1981, Goodman said. This year, he noted, the situation is three times worse.

That, Jarrett noted, means the Legislature “will have to go through the messy sausage-making process.”

The Legislature will tackle the budget “with no pre-ordained plan,” Tom said, although many on the panel already has misgivings about some parts of the governor’s budget.

Springer said the governor’s budget cuts funds for people who are considered unemployable.

“If you take that away, as the governor’s budget does, he said, “where do you think those people will go?”

His assumption: to jails and under freeway overpasses.

Anderson said that education is the paramount duty of the state and that “we have to invest now in K-12” while Jarrett commented that the governor’s budget dealt with education better than he had feared.

However, while Hunter noted that while the governor’s budget “only cut K-12 by 5 percent,” it is likely that the actual deficit the Legislature will have to deal with will be $2 billion worse.

Tom agreed, adding that at least Gregoire did not propose across-the-board cuts. What could happen is the Legislature will take a hard look at programs and kill the ones that do not work or, as Clibborn said, “the governor set it up so we can gore some sacred cows.”

In response to a audience question about corporate tax breaks, Hunter said the Legislature does not have a lot of attractive options.

“There are not a lot of obvious give-aways,” he said.

Anderson offered the option of a flat corporate business tax to replace the B&O tax “that puts a cap on the ability of small businesses to grow into medium-sized businesses.”

He was adamant that any change include a prohibition of a personal income tax.

To help spur economic development, Jarrett would transform Bellevue Community College into a four-year school, to which Hunter gave a thumbs up. Springer added that the state should fund four-year schools by considering the types of degrees offered rather than seats filled by students.

Any federal stimulus money should go to the private sector, Clibborn said with Tom adding that it should go targeted at economic development.

To much applause, Clibborn and others said a design package for a new 520 bridge would be passed by the end of the session. However, one of the final debates is yet to occur over whether or not to toll I-90.

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