As a reporter, I always try to imagine what questions my audience might have. In the case of the state budget crisis, the two obvious questions seem to be: what are lawmakers going to cut and what might a tax hike package look like? Good luck getting a straight answer to either question.
Now, I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck. I know that politics dictates that politicians not reveal their strategic plans to the opposition party, voters or, God forbid, reporters. Nonetheless, the state is in a crisis and there’s a big lack of straight-talking going on in Olympia.
On the tax question, here’s what we know. Stakeholder groups who have a lot to lose from budget cuts are meeting to discuss possible tax package ideas. These are ideas that will be brought to the Democratic leadership in the Legislature — namely Speaker of the House Frank Chopp, D-Seattle and Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane.
“There are serious discussions going on,” confirms Randy Revelle at the Washington State Hospital Association. But when pressed for details, Revelle referred me to Chopp and Brown — both of whom are steadfast in saying it’s too early to talk about taxes because decisions first need to be made about what to cut. I also asked Rebecca Kavoussi, with the Community Health Network of Washington, about meetings to discuss taxes. Her response: “No comment.” She added that I was probably getting a lot of no comments these days. She’s right. Clearly there’s a conspiracy to keep reporters (and therefore the public) in the dark.
Joe Turner of the Tacoma News Tribune recently blogged that: “the shadow legislature of unions and other stakeholders is … holding ‘focus groups’ in communities” to figure out what kinds of taxes and how a big a tax the public might be willing to vote for later this year.
So, if they don’t want to talk about taxes — what about budget cuts? The projected deficit has now swelled to more than $8 billion. Majority Democrats have done an early round of belt-tightening. But so far they’re mum about the big cuts that are coming. Yes, they’ll speak in generalities and they’re telling the public to brace for the worst. But wringing any details out of them about what’s being considered behind closed doors — and they do a lot of closed door meeting in Olympia — is a fruitless exercise at this point. Minority Republicans also refuse to talk about their suggestions for big ticket cuts. Why become a lightning rod if you don’t have to?
To be fair, we do have Gov. Chris Gregoire’s December budget proposal as a roadmap for what’s coming. And we still haven't reached the midpoint of the 105-day session, so lawmakers are still getting their arms around the budget problem. Clearly big decisions haven’t yet been made. But for now Democrats are waiting to have a frank, public conversation with voters about specifically what's on the chopping block and what taxes might be proposed.
Of course, all of these questions and more will be answered in good time — on legislative time. We will find out what lawmakers and stakeholder groups have been working on in secret. In the meantime, reporters like me will keep working to find out what’s happening behind closed doors.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!