Gregoire talks tough on a new budgeting approach

In a pro-business crowd, she test-markets a message for getting through the recession, and the fall elections. Plus: an unusual new argument for the waterfront tunnel.
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Gov. Chris Gregoire.

In a pro-business crowd, she test-markets a message for getting through the recession, and the fall elections. Plus: an unusual new argument for the waterfront tunnel.

Gov. Chris Gregoire addressed the Seattle Rotary Wednesday, previewing her new budget approach (details Thursday) and also test-marketing the kind of message she and other Democrats will be sending during the fall election season.

Nothing very surprising: The governor plans to continue mixing cuts and tax increases. She threw in some inspirational messages about how Washington state will not follow others in any race to the bottom by harming basic services. Other states? "they're mediocre!" the governor crowed, scoring off Arizona and California. She said there would also be increased efforts on helping local companies to export more.

Curiously, Gregoire took a few swings at doubters of America's resilience, harking back to the Vietnam War era: "Those who doubted us then are doubting us now. They were wrong then and they're wrong now." It's unlikely any of those doubters, past or present, were in the large audience of Rotarians, so three modestly grudging standing ovations greeted the governor.

She was more at home in government-speak, providing a peek at her new budget approach. There will be eight critical questions to be asked of each department before their budgets are increased or shuffled. (What, no questions asked before?) Gregoire didn't evoke former Gov. Gary Locke's system of zero-based budgeting, but did say evasively that she would deploy "zero-based budgeting for a start." Citizens will be asked to submit suggestions, and there will be a statewide tour to tout the new, more rigorous budgeting approach.

Whether this message that good times are coming soon can get the state through the current budget year remains an open question. It all depends on when, and whether, Congress will vote significant relief to the states in the fall. The current state budget assumes it will come, but if there is a firm congressional no before the elections, as seems increasingly likely, Gregoire may be forced to call a special session in August, on the eve of the primary. Otherwise, the strategy appears to cross fingers and wait for a lame-duck Congress to vote the unpopular increased spending after the November election.

Gregoire took a few questions and shed some new light on some issues. Asked about voter initiatives she might favor or oppose, she edged close to supporting I-1098, the state income tax measure, saying she was "intrigued," and busy "scrutinizing" it. That seemed safely on the fence, but she then added that if I-1098 were to fail, the state would be stuck finding a way to fund new K-12 requirements. "I don't have a backup plan," she admitted.

Another question was whether Seattle was providing enough support for her position on the deep-bore waterfront tunnel. The governor, after a mild dig at Mayor Mike McGinn, who opposes the tunnel, produced an unusual argument for the tunnel. Reporting on her trip to view a transit tunnel in Vancouver (finished "on budget, ahead of schedule"), Gregoire noted that the cut-and-cover portion, which displaced lots of local businesses during construction, has drawn lawsuits from bankrupt businesses, while the bored tunnel portion has no legal challenges. She said this was one reason she opposed Mayor Greg Nickels' earlier plan for a cut-and-cover tunnel under Alaskan Way.

The gratuitous dig at Nickels was odd, since the two ended up agreeing on the tunnel plan, but it is indicative of how poor relations continue to be between Olympia and Seattle. The broader context is this: Gregoire basically took herself out of the battles over the Viaduct for a full year, leading up to her reelection in 2008. That allowed the cut-and-cover tunnel idea to die a natural death, by neglect. Ironically, Gregoire's no-show-year may have saved the Seattle waterfront from a commercial disaster. Not exactly leadership.


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