Gathering storms for Democrats in Olympia

The next session of the legislature could be an ugly one for majority Democrats, with restive labor unions and still more cuts to make in the budget.
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Speaker Frank Chopp leads House Democrats.

The next session of the legislature could be an ugly one for majority Democrats, with restive labor unions and still more cuts to make in the budget.

Majority Democrats in the Washington legislature are facing a miserable 60-day, election-year session come January. They'ꀙre likely to face another $1 billion budget hole, owing to a combination of factors including declining revenues and increasing caseloads. In addition, they'ꀙll be under pressure from the business community to do something about rising workers'ꀙ compensation rates. And Boeing could either have announced or be about to announce that its second 787 line is going to Charleston, S.C.

Meanwhile labor unions will be watching to see what Democrats plan to do to repair tattered relations after this year'ꀙs session, when labor'ꀙs top priority bill was killed in dramatic fashion. The danger for statehouse Democrats, if they don'ꀙt kiss and make-up with labor, is that unions will sit out the 2010 election when all House members and about half of the senators are up for re-election.

To top it off, health care and social service advocates will no doubt be back demanding a tax hike. If that was unpalatable this year, imagine how eager Democrats will be to send a tax measure to voters in an election year, and with the economy probably still ailing.

Granted, Democrats this year closed a $9 billion hole with a combination of federal stimulus dollars and cuts. By that measure, a $1 billion shortfall doesn'ꀙt seem that daunting. But it'ꀙs that next billion that may prove the equivalent of squeezing blood out of turnips. 'ꀜWe have reached a point where we have to consider eliminating discretionary programs in our supplemental budget,'ꀝ warns Victor Moore, Gov. Gregoire's budget director, in a recent news release.

Moore'ꀙs office has instructed state agencies to do a budget-cutting exercise to see what programs would be eliminated if they had to cough up another 2 to 5 percent in savings. That might not sound like much. But consider some of the cuts the Department of Corrections (DOC) would have to make, according to a recent memo:

  • Across-the-board 60-day sentence reductions and 30-day early releases for all offenders.
  • DOC would supervise only felons in the community — no misdemeanants.
  • Community supervision only for those released from prison; no supervision of offenders released from county jails.

'ꀜThis is not a list of things that we are suggesting we should do,'ꀝ Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail cautioned lawmakers on the General Government Appropriations Committee last week. 'ꀜI think some of these are probably not very good ideas. But it is our best guess of what we would need to do if we need to save that much more money.'ꀝ Vail says an additional 2 percent cut would cost his agency $25 million over the next two years.

Minority Republicans view the ongoing budget mess as evidence that Democrats are unwilling to make the hard decisions and really downsize government. Senator Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, said in a statement after last week'ꀙs Revenue Forecast: 'ꀜWhether or not the state economy is recovering, the level of revenue the state is now collecting should be viewed as the new norm, not as a temporary drop from the norm. The baseline has been reset. We as legislators should reset our thinking accordingly.'ꀝ Zarelli went on to call for 'ꀜsignificant money-saving reforms in areas like social and health services'ꀝ — such as placing a time limit on how long people can be on General Assistance-Unemployable, a cash-assistance program.

House Budget Chair Kelli Linville, D-Bellingham, says she'ꀙs met with the new Secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services and is confident programs can be overhauled to achieve significant savings.

Whatever happens next legislative session, it'ꀙs conventional wisdom in state capitals that the majority party cannot emerge from an economic crisis unscathed. Given the dominance of Democrats in both the House and Senate in Olympia, no one thinks they'ꀙre likely to lose their majority party status in the 2010 election. But if Republicans play their cards right, they'ꀙll be well-positioned to win back some seats.


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