Legislative session over, but budget battle just begun

The legislative session may have just ended, but the state's struggles with the budget has only just begun, legislators told Eastside chamber members during the 2009 East King County Chambers of Commerce Legislative Coalition Wrap Up event last Wednesday.

During the event, held at the Woodmark Hotel in Kirkland, East King County Chamber of Commerce members and elected officials from the Eastside that work in Olympia discussed the legislative session that just ended, and potential government business in the future. The question-and-answer session from the chamber members to the legislators covered everything from the state budget to education and transportation.

Many questions had to do with the $9 billion budget shortfall that the state government had to work through.

"The 2011 budget could be more difficult," said Sen. Rodney Tom (D-Medina) of Kirkland's 48th District, who cited declining personal incomes in Washington at as much as 3.1 percent. "We don't know where the federal stimulus will be, so we have some tough numbers ahead."

The two Republicans on the panel did not hold back in their criticism of the majority party.

"Our state budget will spend $200 million more than the last biennium," said Rep. Glenn Anderson (R-Fall City). "We have a worse ratio than that of California. We will start the next session with a $6 billion deficit. Decisions have to be made to cut services cause we are on a train that is going to go over the cliff."

Rep. Eric Pettigrew (D-Seattle) defended his idea to put a measure on the ballot to raise the state sales tax to pay for the gaps in the budget.

"I just wanted to say 'here is another option,'" Pettigrew said. "We could spread the burden out to all people and it was a way to take it to the public and say 'do you accept these cuts?'"

One of the big issues on many voters' minds is the potential loss of a job during the harsh economic climate. A revision of unemployment insurance was one of Rep. Bob Hasegawa's (D-Seattle) primary bills last session.

"Indeed, it was contentious," said Hasegawa. "Big business dominated the conversation to the detriment of small business. But one of the things about unemployment is that it injects stimulus directly into the economy."

The economy has hit the state's education budget especially hard. Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell) announced that she will be a part of a Quality Education Panel of eight legislators next session. The panel will try to redefine what basic education is in Washington state.

Three things that failed to be resolved this session were the Worker Privacy Act, the completion of funds and other issues surrounding a new 520 bridge and possible hot lanes on Interstate 405, officials said.

Rep. Zack Hudgins (D-Tukwila) said he sees an attempt to revive the worker privacy bill in the next session.

"I feel work should be about work," Hudgins said. "You shouldn't have to go to a meeting if it doesn't have to do with work."

The challenges with replacing the 520 bridge and the debate about how to pay for it raged on, even during this relatively friendly Q&A.

Rep. Judy Clibborn (D-Mercer Island), chair of the State Transportation Committee, admitted officials have a long way to go to replace the bridge, but the process has started.

"The east side of the bridge is ready to go but on the west side we have no idea how to get there," said Clibborn.

Two of the panelists discussed 520 bridge tolling will begin before construction.

"Never in the nation has there been a toll on an existing capacity to pay for a new one and we are going to do that," said Clibborn.

But the debate over tolling the Interstate 90 bridge to pay for 520, as well, will continue into next session.

"If you're sitting in diversion (traffic) on I-90, you might understand why it is important," she added.

But the contentious nature of the debate gave the meeting a new tone as Rep. Jay Rodne (R-Snoqualmie) took the microphone. His biggest concern was the lack of a cap on the tolling price and the fact that citizens east of Bellevue don't have as much of an opportunity to take public transportation across the new bridge, potentially curbing the price of those tolls.

A comment by Rep. Deb Eddy (D-Kirkland) about possibly paying $6.50 for a round trip garnered this reaction:

"I beg to differ, I think it will be more like $6.50 each way," Rodne said. "We need to have better policy and you only get that through negotiation. Elections have consequences. We have one party in power and until you hold us accountable that is how it will be."

The final transportation issue was on the potential use of hot lanes on 405. In hot lanes, single-occupancy drivers pay to use the HOV lane. The lanes are widely used on the East Coast and in Europe. Washington installed its first hot lane on Highway 167, south of 405.

"There would be a tremendous benefit," said former Kirkland Mayor and current Rep. Larry Springer, a big proponent of hot lanes. "405 is arguably the most congested corridor in the state. It has reduced northbound commute times on 167 by 10 minutes."

Springer got the biggest laugh of the meeting when he contended that Hasegawa got caught in 520 traffic because other lawmakers set it up.

"We wanted to make a point because we will be voting on this issue some more," said Springer.

Hasegawa was one of two lawmakers that were late to the meeting because of traffic congestion.

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