It’s budget and taxes week in Olympia — big time.
President’s Day will bring dueling pro-and-anti tax rallies to the Capitol. Tea Party types on one side, public employee union members and social service advocates on the other. Perhaps as early as Tuesday, Gov. Chris Gregoire will roll out a series of tax proposals to “buy-back” nearly $800 million in programs she cut in her pro-forma December supplemental budget for the current biennial state budget.
By Thursday, Senate Democrats plan to unveil their plan for closing the (now) $2.8 billion budget shortfall. Like the governor's, theirs will include a combination of cuts and taxes. The big question: How much longer will the Senate’s buy-back list be than Gregoire’s?
This is what the 60-day election-year short session has come down to: majority Democrats searching for a Goldilocks “just-right” balance between cuts and taxes in order to avoid mutiny by their base supporters on the left and by independent voters this fall.
But in the short-term, Democratic leaders in the legislature have a third possible mutiny to worry about — one led by their own members.
Let's do the math. In the Washington state senate, with 49 members, it takes 25 votes to pass a bill. On paper Democrats have a healthy 31 members, plus Lt. Gov. Brad Owen, who can cast some limited tie-breaking votes but not on final passage of the budget. But the reality is more complicated. Right away you can subtract Sen. Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch, who is the Joe Lieberman of the caucus and a sure No vote on any budget that includes taxes.
Then there are several swing-district Democrats, some of whom face tough re-election battles this year. In an important test case, these moderate-to-conservative members broke with their caucus last week over the decision to suspend I-960. That’s the voter-approved initiative requiring that all tax hikes receive a two-thirds supermajority vote or be put to a popular vote.
These Blue Dog Democrats are Sens. Steve Hobbs (Lake Stevens), Claudia Kauffman (Kent), Derek Kilmer (Gig Harbor), and Chris Marr (Spokane). That takes the Democratic majority down to 26. It’s possible, if not likely, these senators were given a caucus “pass” so they wouldn’t have to take a “bad” vote. It doesn’t mean they’re not team players. But their No votes do hint at the political heat they’re feeling from their districts and a willingness, or need, to assert a bit of independence from their party.
There’s at least one other wild-card Democrat in the senate worth keeping an eye on. Brian Hatfield (of Raymond, on the Washington coast) voted for the I-960 suspension last week, but he’s making waves this session as one of the leaders of the unofficial “road kill” caucus. The name refers to middle-of-the-road Democrats who say they often feel run over. Suddenly we're at a fragile 25 votes.
The question isn’t whether Senate Democrats can muster enough votes to pass their own budget proposal. That’s probably not in doubt. But if House Democrats demand a more robust tax package and won’t back down, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown may start having trouble rounding up 25 votes.
The potential for mutiny seems even greater in the 98-member House where it takes 50 votes to pass a bill and Democrats have 61 members, putting Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, in the business of herding cats. He’s a master at knowing exactly what it takes to keep each of his members under the proverbial tent. But this will be a test year.
The challenge — if there is one — will come from the left. Democratic leaders, including Chopp, have all but taken the sales tax off the table as an option for raising revenues this year. Nonetheless, last week 16 House Democrats signed onto a proposed temporary one-cent sales tax increase tied to the unemployment rate.
Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, isn’t a co-sponsor of the sales-tax bill, but says he supports the idea. He’s part of the so-called Blue-Green caucus, a reference to more than a dozen labor-and-environmental-minded House Democrats who have come together to stand as a bulwark against the, at times, centrist tilt of the House caucus. Simpson, for one, feels that budget cuts have already been too deep and significant revenues are needed to shore up the social safety net and other state programs.
This view is at odds with the more conservative House Democratic leadership as personified by House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler of Hoquiam. Last year, the Blue-Greeners flexed their muscle at the end of session. This year, Simpson says there’s the potential for more intra-caucus fireworks over the budget.
Recent history suggests Democrats will hold it together and keep their divisions behind caucus doors. But the pressure on the majority party this year cannot be under-estimated. Democrats are being pushed hard by organized labor and social service advocates to raise substantial revenues. At the same time, 1994-style storm clouds are swirling, recalling an election that punished Democrats for getting out ahead of the tax-wary electorate.
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