Legislature heading toward a classic budget showdown

The Senate will be for living within revenues that are growing. The House will favor funding the needs that are growing. James Bond would relish this fight.
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The Senate will be for living within revenues that are growing. The House will favor funding the needs that are growing. James Bond would relish this fight.

Who's Goldfinger? Who's the man? The man with the Midas touch.

Is he Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, who is the Washington Senate majority coalition's chief budget writer? Or is he Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, the House budget guru?

Both face the same set of Washington operating budget facts for 2013-2015.

The 2011-2013 operating budget appears on track to be $30.5 billion. The predicted operating budget revenue for 2013-2015 appears on track to be $32.5 billion — $2 billion more than 2011-2013. The state faces a $1.2 billion to $1.3 billion shortfall between the costs of Washington's obligations and the anticipated 2013-2015 income, according to the Washington Office of Financial Management.

Those shortfall figures cover only the costs of continuing existing programs. Beyond that, there is the need to meet the Washington Supreme Court mandate to upgrade K-12 education. Hunter puts that figure at $1.4 billion, which would create a $2.6 billion to $2.7 billion overall shortfall. The House Republicans believe the Supreme Court school obligations for 2013-2015 can be fixed with $817 million, which would create a $2 billion to $2.1 billion total shortfall.

Senate Republican leaders won't say yet how much they believe is needed to meet the Supreme Court's education requirements — being mum on the nature of the tune they will sing. The only clue is Hill saying: "There is no correlation between increased spending and student outcomes."

So everyone is facing a budget deficit cliff they cannot avoid, but rather, as in "The Spy Who Loved Me," something they are obligated to deal with.

Hill is expected to unveil the Republican-oriented Senate majority coalition budget proposal next week or early the following week. The math will be built around the fact that the 2013-2015 revenues appear to be $2 billion higher than the current's biennium's numbers. It will reflect how the 23-Republican-two-Democrat alliance believes it can meet the Supreme Court's education fix-it mandate without raising taxes, while also pumping more money — $75 million to $300 million, depending on who's doing the math — into higher education.

The majority coalition's proposal will likely feature an unexpected end to some programs.

Meanwhile, the House Democrats will release their budget plan a few days after the Senate proposal is announced. It will definitely be a different version of the same piece of music.

Hunter does not buy the Senate majority coalition's approach, saying the budget picture is much, much more complicated. Where the Republican see more income, Hunters see inflation; increasing costs that are out of the state's control; the June 30 expiration of beer and hospital beds taxes plus a 0.3 percent business and occupation surcharge; a growing population needing more services; and other variables.

Also, Hunter does not believe a $2.7 billion shortfall can be tackled without enacting some new taxes. "It's hard to do that without additional revenue," he said.

In James Bond terms, it's a Walther PPK versus The Golden Gun. Both sides have confidence in their ability to win the argument.

Meanwhile, Gov. Jay Inslee -- the new kid replacing veteran Gov. Chris Gregoire -- is expected to announce by the end of March his spending budgeting priorities and a proposed closing of a few hundred million dollars worth of tax exemptions — but no detailed proposed budget.

Democrats have floated some trial balloons for $200 million to $300 million worth of tax exemptions and tax credits to eliminate. However, Democrats have not unveiled any specifics. Republican leaders said they might discuss closing some tax exemptions, but have always been chilly to the concept.


The different budgetary approaches will set up behind-the scenes negotiations between the minions of Rep. Frank Chopp, D-Seattle — who is considered the Ernest Stavro Blofeld of the House — and the underlings of Majority Coalition Leader Rodney Tom, D-Medina and the Dr. No of the Senate.

Each political leader will provide guidance his budget writers when compromise sessions begin: "What does it matter to ya/When you got a job to do/You gotta do it well/You gotta give the other fellow hell."

All kidding aside, the backroom budget talks will be marked by considerable respect, dignity and, ultimately, the desire to do what's best for Washington.

And after all the posturing and angst, everyone will shake hands and speak of bipartisan good will. And afterward, Chopp and Tom will tell their negotiators: "Nobody does it better/makes me sad for the rest/Nobody does it half as good as you/Baby, you're the best."

For exclusive coverage of the state Legislature, check out Crosscut's Olympia 2013 page.


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About the Authors & Contributors

John Stang

John Stang

John Stang is a freelance writer who often covers state government and the environment. He can be reached on email at johnstang_8@hotmail.com and on Twitter at @johnstang_8