Olympia crunch time: no plan, lots of polls

The Legislature does not have a budget that can pass, so a frenzied search is on for a voter-approved tax increase that looks good in the polls
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Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. (State of Washington)

The Legislature does not have a budget that can pass, so a frenzied search is on for a voter-approved tax increase that looks good in the polls

Word from Olympia insiders is that the Democratic leadership is stymied, with only a few weeks to go in the legislative session. The budget bills reported out by the House and Senate have been such a shock in their deep cuts that there probably aren't enough Democratic votes to pass a budget. Hence the flurry of polls to see what tax increases the voters might go for.

Last week's trial balloon was an income tax aimed at people earning more than $100,000 a year. The latest idea to be ballooned and polled is a temporary three-tenths of a cent increase in the sales tax, dedicated to health care and nursing homes. According to Mike Hewitt, the Senate Republican leader from Walla Walla, Moore Information Systems took a poll and found the voters opposed, 56-39. The Moore poll was for an increase of the sales tax from 6.5 to 7.5%, triple the rate in the newest proposal. Presumably its negative result prompted the latest proposal for a boost to 6.8%. Likewise, the sudden disappearance of the income tax proposal may be due to poll results.

According to one well-placed insider, the original strategy for the session was for the major interest groups (state employees, teachers, and health-care and social service unions) to take the endangered services to the ballot this fall, passing a tax increase to fund them. Polling indicated voters disliked a general increase, fearing it would all go to "bureaucrats," so it was targeted to popular things such as education. That narrowing depleted the coalition, as state employees peeled off, later to be joined by the WEA. The next shock came when rank and file Democrats saw how deep the cuts were, leading to a new search for a tax increase that could survive the test of polling.

Compounding the problem is the lack of leadership from Gov. Gregoire, still hamstrung by her foolish no-new-taxes pledge in the 2008 campaign. Speaker Frank Chopp, normally opposed to risking his Democratic majority by having members have to take a vote on new taxes, is currently (and typically) hard to decipher. That leaves only Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, a Spokane liberal, willing to float out tax ideas as "discussion starters." Republicans are simply enjoying the meltdown, saying it was all the fault of Democrats, who have been running Olympia for decades, in enacting such huge increases during the recent boomtimes.

Two outcomes seem possible. One is a no-tax-increase budget that is actually laden with fee increases, tuition hikes, and other finesses. The other possibility is passing a huge-pain budget, followed by a mighty effort to find consensus among the major interest groups over the summer, and then putting a targeted new tax, likely a highly progressive income tax, up for a do-or-die vote this fall. Citizen leaders will take the flak for the proposal, allowing legislators to "be guided by the will of the people."

Should that vote fail, or the courts rule the income tax unconstitutional (each could easily happen), we will resume the crisis negotiations in a special session. California impasse, here we come.


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