These are the elements of a Washington state Democratic legislator's nightmare: a $2.6 billion state budget deficit, a Democratic governor, a Democratic state legislature and an off-year election when a Democratic president has fired up the conservatives and disillusioned the liberals.
Unfortunately, this is more than a bad dream. On Mon., January 11, the Washington State Legislature began, giving lawmakers just 60 days to do something about the state's budget mess.
"I'm getting ready to do battle," jokes state Senator Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines). "I'm girding my loins."
Keiser and her fellow lawmakers have two choices, neither of them very palatable: raise taxes in an election year or shred the state's social safety net. Whichever they choose, the sizable Democratic majorities in both the state House and Senate will get the credit and the blame.
Back in December, Democratic Gov. Chris Gregoire released a budget that balanced the state's income and expenses without raising taxes, as required by state law. The results were so ugly that even the risk-averse Gregoire pronounced, "I can't live with this budget."
Among other things, the budget slashed $851 million in human services spending including completely eliminating health insurance for 65,000 Washingtonians and ending the tiny state cash grant, General Assistance -Unemployable, to 18,000 disabled adults ["Budget offers "way too little," Dec. 16-22]; cutting $408 million from K-12 education including all state funds for all-day kindergarten; and slashing $271 million from higher education, including eliminating or reducing state financial aid for 71,000 college students, according to non-partisan Senate staff. The damage to real people would be staggering.
On Tues., Jan. 12, Gregoire released a revised budget with up to $750 million in new "revenues" (Olympia-speak for taxes). Last week, at a forum sponsored by the Associated Press, she would not get specific but said she might propose closing tax loopholes and hoped the federal government would come through with up to $1 billion to help out.
Gregoire, of course, could be much bolder. She is serving her second term and most recent Washington governors haven't sought re-election for a third time. Therefore, she could assume the political risk of proposing $2 billion in new taxes and let the Democratic Legislature cut her revenue proposal. Gregoire says, however, "I don't want to raise taxes."
Sen. Keiser, a member of the Ways and Means Committee that passes the budget before it is considered by the whole Senate, says no one knows yet what new taxes are coming. While Democratic leaders have taken a general property tax increase off the table, many other ideas are in play. Keiser will introduce a new tax on tobacco products like snuff and cigarillos that still aren't taxed as heavily as cigarettes. She says that other legislators are discussing putting forth sales taxes on candy, gum and bottled water.
The risk of new taxes in an election year will strain even the magic of the electoral wizards of Washington State: State House Speaker Frank Chopp and State Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown. Since Chopp took over as Democratic House leader in 1998, the Democrats have gone from 39 to 61 seats in the 98-seat House. In 2002, Brown became the Democrats' Senate Minority Leader; this year, the Democrats enjoy a 31-18 majority in the 49-seat Senate. Chopp and Brown have accomplished these remarkable political achievements by building Democratic electoral machines that raise tons of money, campaign very hard and do a terrific job of candidate recruitment. They have proved extremely adept at finding politicians who resonate with the moderate, cul-de-sac politics of suburban districts across the state. New taxes will undoubtedly diminish their hold on power.
Voters will weigh in on the performance of all 98 state representatives and half of the state senators in November. Voters usually think nationally while voting locally, and that is not good news for Democrats.
"Frank Chopp and his political machine will raise more money," says Republican consultant Chris Vance. "They will run better campaigns than Republicans, but that only gets you so far when the tide is running against you."
The only question, in Vance's mind, is: How many seats in the state legislature do the Republicans pick up? "It looks pretty certain it will be a Republican year. How big will it be? Will it be 10 seats? Or will it be 30 seats?" asks Vance.
Democratic consultant John Wyble, who works with both Chopp and Brown, believes that the state Legislature's Democrats represent their constituents too well to be tossed out over a tax vote and President Barack Obama's controversies. "These [legislators] fit their districts," he says. He also thinks the Democrats can put together a budget package that cuts $1 billion, closes tax loopholes ($400-700 million), gets some dough from the feds ($500 million) and raises a variety of other taxes ($400 million). In Wyble's mind, such a budget package won't result in many Democratic losses.
While Wyble is confident, Senate Majority Leader Brown, herself, seems acutely aware of the political risk that she is facing. Still, she says, "Oregon has taxes on the ballot. Idaho is raising taxes. It's a national economic problem. We've got to step up."