Special session begins with crowds, uncertainty

Washington lawmakers will have lots of company tomorrow, the first day of the special session of the legislature. The capital campus will host around 3,000 visitors, who have something to say to the state legislature. These include Service Employees International Union 775 Northwest, which may be interested in asking the legislature not to suspend the initiative the union just convinced voters to approve (price tag – $37 million).

Two “occupy”-style marches will add to the crowds. “The People’s Special Session” will begin first thing in the morning in Olympia’s Sylvester Park. From there it’s a six-block march to the capitol. The Occupy Olympia forces have been camped out around Capital Lake for several weeks and also plan to take their protest to the capital.

Other expected to organize include the Arc of Washington State, Olympia Coalition for a Fair Budget, the Washington Education Association and the Sisters Organize for Survival, a group from Seattle that’s urging protesters to spend the night in Olympia.

 

The purpose of the emergency gathering of legislators is, of course, to address a $2-billion crater in the state operating budget. When the governor called for the special session several weeks ago, it must have seemed that there would be enough time to craft a budget solution before the session started.  Then all lawmakers would have to do would be to approve an agreed-to plan in a session that would last a few days. That hope appears now to have faded.  Here’s why.

Democrats generally wish to protect social safety-net programs and education from another round of cuts or even total elimination. In order to accomplish this, they would have to bring more money into the state budget. In other words, they have to raise a tax or eliminate a tax “loophole” (which is a tax “incentive” if you’re the one that gets it.)

Washington is one of 17 states where raising a tax or fee requires a “yes” vote of two thirds of legislators in the House and two thirds in the Senate. But Republicans generally are not in favor of a tax increase and want to talk about cutting costs through government reforms.  Democrats do not hold two-thirds majorities; they need Republican votes to pass a tax increase.   There’s the hurdle.

The governor has suggested sending a half-cent sales tax increase to voters as a referendum. This hurdle is lower, requiring just a 51-percent vote from each chamber.

 

Meantime, legislators in leadership positions say there is no imperative to pass a budget deal in December. If lawmakers cannot come to an agreement in the weeks before Christmas, they could simply adjourn and come back in January. The budget deficit will wait for them.

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About Linda Schactler

Linda is the former Director of Communications for the Washington State Senate, and former deputy director of the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board. From 2000 through 2010 Linda was the proprietor of Schactler Communications, an Olympia-based public affairs business. She holds a master of arts in English literature from Washington University in St. Louis. Linda can be reached at her Ellensburg office schactler@cwu.edu, 509-963-1384, or on her cell phone, 509-607-4103.
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