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The boys behind the budget doors

Credit: Milt Priggee

As the Legislature gets down to the business of writing a budget for the next two years, most of the work is being done by four men: two veterans from the Democratic-controlled House and two relative newcomers from the Republican-led Senate. All of it behind closed doors.

With so much at stake this biennium — how to pay for public education, support job growth and reset taxation levels — the parties have turned to some of their smartest and most talented members. As a group, budget boys Andy Hill, John Braun, Ross Hunter and Reuven Carlyle boast eight degrees, two Microsoft pedigrees and enough ambition to humble Jeff Bezos.

They can expect lots of backup from Olympia powerbrokers like House Speaker Frank Chopp and Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler. But how well all that brain power and testosterone can mesh will determine whether negotiations produce a state budget by the April 26 end-of-session deadline, or whether us taxpayers wind up footing the bill for a special overtime session — or two.

Meet Olympia’s budget boys.

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond

Hill, 51, has been a state senator for less than five years, but he’s already serving his third term as chair of the Senate Ways & Means Committee. That’s a super-fast rise, even when you consider that it was fueled by the defection of two Democrats which gave Republicans control of the Senate.

Some think Hill’s rise was a little too fast. They question whether he has the experience necessary for the daunting budget task before him. Others believe Hill’s rumored interest in the governor’s job – not publicly confirmed – may handicap the senator, forcing him to keep conservatives in his caucus happy without jeopardizing his chances with the state’s more moderate electorate.

Andy Hill
Andy Hill

Experience and ambitions notwithstanding, Hill certainly brings some chops to the Legislature. The Denver native is undeniably smart, boasting a degree in physics from Colgate University and a Harvard MBA. He moved to Washington in 1990 to work for Microsoft where he designed and managed various software projects for a decade. After surviving lung cancer, Hill ran for the state Senate in 2010.

The big question about Hill: How opposed to tax increases is he really? In last year’s tough re-election campaign, he raised a whopping $1.04 million, mostly from a business set that stands to lose in most tax increase scenarios. He also argued recently that the House’s proposal to boost education spending with a capital gains tax “puts students last, tying education funding to tax increases. I’m not sure if that’s unconstitutional or just unconscionable.”

So, when push comes to shove in this year’s battle of the budget, which Andy Hill will show up? The conservative, tax-averse Ways and Means chair or the moderate gubernatorial candidate in waiting?

Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia

Braun, 48, is another relative newcomer to the state senate, having upset GOP incumbent Dan Swecker in 2012. Like Andy Hill, his political career got a boost from the Majority Coalition coup of 2012, which made the conservative Braun chair of the Senate Economic Development Committee. From there, he shepherded through many business-oriented bills – which mostly died in the Democrat-controlled House.

John Braun
John Braun

Braun became deputy majority leader of the Majority Coalition for 2015. A Navy veteran, he has a strong business and engineering background and a reputation as a devout conservative. He holds an electrical engineering degree from the University of Washington, and master’s degrees in business administration and engineering management from the University of Michigan. He is president of Braun Northwest, which designs, builds and modifies law enforcement and emergency vehicles. He has been a member of the Association of Washington Business and the National Federal of Independent Businesses, which have major lobbying operations in Olympia.

Unlike Andy Hill, Braun is not under any political pressure to alter his conservative budget stances. This session, he sponsored a tuition reduction bill that passed along party lines in the Senate, and has become a major point of contention in the budget negotiations.

Braun is also a GOP point man in the effort to trim already negotiated pay raises for state employees, another major budget dispute between Republicans and Democrats. 

Rep. Ross Hunter, D- Medina

Hunter, 53, is one of the smartest, most experienced lawmakers in Olympia. A savvy veteran of the budgeting process, he is serving in his 13th session as a legislator, his fifth as chair of the House Appropriations Committee or its equivalent.

Politically, Hunter is a so-called suburban moderate, who is not always in synch with his fellow Dems. He has a problem that Andy Hill does not: He is forced to say no (behind the scenes) to a lot of Democratic budget requests because the money to support them is simply not there. (Like Hill, he’s a cancer survivor; in 2007, his treatment for lymphoma included such extensive use of radiation that he was in isolation for a week.) His interest in school levy reform does not inspire other members of his caucus.

Ross Hunter
Ross Hunter

Like Hill, Hunter is a former Microsoft geek. He graduated from Yale with a degree in computer sciences and became one of Microsoft’s first employees. He rose to become a general manager before retiring in 2000, one year before Hill.

Cocky, outspoken and sometimes tightly wound, Hunter is a hardcore budget wonk, who doesn’t think much of the GOP approach. “The Senate’s budget assumes millions in magic agency ‘efficiencies,’ which are essentially budget gimmicks designed to make cuts without being specific about which cuts they’re making,” said Hunter. “It also undermines the collective bargaining process by not honoring the negotiated contract agreements for state employees.”

The question for Hunter: Can he harness his inestimable skills and experience to orchestrate a true budget compromise rather than just scoring a few debating points?

Rep. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle

Carlyle, 49, is another smart, experienced Democrat. He is serving in his seventh session as a legislator, third as chair of the House Finance Committee and may be the only lawmaker in Olympia wonkier than Ross Hunter.

Reuven Carlyle
Reuven Carlyle

He holds a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a master’s in public administration from Harvard. He is a veteran entrepreneur, specializing in high-tech and wireless communications ventures.

Politically, Carlyle is the poster child for “Seattle liberal.” His passion is tax reform and he is constantly trying – with limited success – to revamp a state system that is considered the most regressive in the nation. “We all want to find ways to have Somalia-level taxes with Denmark-level services,” said Carlyle, who has successfully pushed to make tax breaks prove their financial worth in order to be extended. This year’s Democratic budget proposal closes seven tax breaks, raising $385 million in 2015-2017.

Representing a deeply liberal Seattle district, Carlyle is the John Braun of the left, a passionate politician with a safe seat and no real pressure to compromise.

Related story: Having fun yet? Legislature’s endgame is just beginning

All photos by John Stang

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