Survival of the fittest: Both sides prep for state budget battle

House Democrats prepare to pass their budget. And partisan sniping breaks out on a transportation issues.
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Sen. Don Benton of Vancouver discusses bills scheduled for committee review with staffer Alison Mendiola.

House Democrats prepare to pass their budget. And partisan sniping breaks out on a transportation issues.

Today, the Democratic-controlled Washington House will likely pass  the $34.5 billion 2013-2015 budget it unveiled two days ago.

The House's Republican minority will gripe and make symbolic gestures against the size of that budget, complaining that it is too big and will hurt business too much by eliminating tax exemptions and extending a beer and a business-and-operations tax for service-related firms.

The House minority will mimic the Senate's minority Democrats who griped and made symbolic gestures last week when the Republican-oriented Senate passed a $33.21 billion budget that slashed social and health services while keeping tax exemptions intact. 

The passage of the Democratic budget will set the stage for a long stretch of behind-the-scenes negotiations between the Senate's and House's budget gurus to reconcile vast differences in tax exemptions, slashing non-education budgets, and ideas of where to scrape extra money from.

Each side has huddled in their caucuses, preparing themselves to present a "West Side Story" kind of "we-shall-not-budge" public stance entering these talks.

The question is: Does anyone believe two diametrically opposed political sides can resolve so many hardcore differences in the 16 days between now and the end of the session on April 28? If you have to bet, the safe wager is that the session will go into extra innings.

So the two sides will battle behind closed doors, hoping it will come to a peaceful end in which they can each claim victory.

For those keeping score, Gov. Jay Inslee and the House Democrats have somewhat similar budget plans, while the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus — 23 Republicans and two Democrats — have something radically different ideas. 

Here's how the Senate and House proposals will begin the budget talks:

  • Total budget: House begins at $34.5 billion; Senate begins at $33.21 billion.
  • Allocation for Washington Supreme Court-mandated improvements in education: The House starts at $1.3 billion; Senate starts at $1billion. The House version has money for improving  teacher-student ratios in grades K-3 in 2013-2015. The Senate version does not.
  • Extra revenue: The House would close 15 tax exemptions worth $751 million. The Senate version does not eliminate any tax exemptions. The House version would extend expiring beer and services-related B&O taxes ro raise $592.7 million for 2013-2015. The Senate version would extend an expiring hospital safety-net tax by six years, raising $238 million for 2013-2015.
  • Cuts: The Senate version would dramatically slash social and health services. The House versions cuts are radically smaller.
  • Higher education: The House proposal is geared for maximum tuition increases of 5 percent at the University of Washington, Washington State University and Western Washington University, and 3 percent at the other state colleges. The Senate proposal is tailored to create a 3 percent tuition reduction.


The budget is not the only blossoming smackdown between Democrats and Republicans in Olympia.

There's the proposed new Interstate 5 bridge connecting Vancouver and Portland. The Columbia River Crossing is a $3.5 billion project to replace the current structure with a modern bridge, which would include a Vancouver-to-Portland light rail extension. Democrats  like it. Washington state Republicans hate it.

The two sides are really, really in hardcore combat over the bridge's replacement.  

That division includes the Clark County delegation. Sens. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, and Don Benton, R-Vancouver are vehemently against it. U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Washington, opposes it. Meanwhile, state Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, and Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, support the replacement. The U.S..Department of Transportation, Inslee and U.S.  Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, support it

The main pro-new-bridge arguments are that the current bridge is very old and is a major link along a major West Coast transportation corridor. The anti-new-bridge arguments are that iit would be too low for some boat traffic and Vancouver residents don't want to pay for light rail. 

U.S.Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican, visited Olympia this past week to lobby Inslee, the House and the Senate for the Legislature to allocate $450 million for the project. Oregon and the feds have already ponied up their shares. LaHood said an issue with bridge height can be addressed. Opponents want the new bridge redesigned.

The current House transportation budget has $450 million set aside for this project. The Senate transportation budget does not.

"We're ready to fund this project. We're ready to move," LaHood said Wednesday. If Washington does not appropriate the $450 million now, the federal money will be shifted to other projects with U.S. dollars likely not becoming available again for a decade, he said. 

"This is a one-time, one-shot oppoortnity for the state of Washington. It won't be here next year or the year after next. ... This is the 11th hour. Fish or cut bait. It's time to make a decision," LaHood said.

Rivers and Benton led a Wednesday charge against the project, captured in a difficult-to-follow video of the meeting between LaHood and the Senate Majority Coalition Caucus. Benton argued that the new bridge's tolls would hurt Clark County residents. He also contended the bridge would cost Clark County 4,000 permanent jobs due to its effects on upriver businesses. And he contended the new bridge would pose a national security risk because U.S. Navy ships could not move upstream of the bridge, without elaborating why the Navy would move good-sized ships east of Portland.

Benton put out a press release with a headline that said: "it's Benton 1, U.S. Transportation Secretary 0 in Columbia River Crossing debate at Captiol."

In his release, Benton said: “We were ready with questions when Governor Inslee brought Secretary LaHood in to lobby our coalition this morning. As a result, it wasn’t even a fair fight. I’d say we schooled the transportation secretary in a way he couldn’t possibly have expected. ... I guess the governor thought he could strong-arm the Senate Majority Coalition into rolling over by bringing the D.C. folks in to give us the same ‘this bridge or no bridge’ lecture he’s been delivering. Instead, the transportation secretary had his hat handed to him."

Meanwhile, Cleveland and Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way and co-chairwoman of the Senate Transportation Committee, sent a letter to LaHood Thursday saying a new bridge would  "spur economic activity from Canada to Mexico, which is exactly what our region needs."

The letter later slammed Benton's spirited remarks to LaHood in Wednesday's Majority Coalition Caucus meeting: "We regret the undignified reception you received when you met with the Republican majority coalition in the state Senate. The views of a single vocal member by no means represent the will of our larger legislative body. Most of our members realize this project will translate into jobs for both the short-term and the long-term."    


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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 and on Twitter at @johnstang_8