State lawmakers brace for tough session

By Cathy Kessinger, Herald staff writerJanuary 9, 2011 

OLYMPIA -- Republican state Sen. Jim Honeyford of Sunnyside might have best summed up what this year's session of the Washington Legislature will be like: "Long, painful and difficult."

When lawmakers gather Monday in Olympia, they will face a state budget in even worse financial shape than last year.

There is an almost $5 billion hole to plug in the next two-year budget.

But another $500 million has to be cut from the budget for this biennium, which ends in June, so the first order of business likely will be more chopping -- possibly of services to the state's most needy.

Then legislators will need to take up the $4.6 billion in expected revenue that has evaporated from the next two-year cycle because of the bad economy.

Gov. Chris Gregoire has released her plan for the 2011-13 biennium, balancing the books by cutting state programs for the low-income, using more of the state's rainy day fund and suspending two voter-approved initiatives. Those initiatives dealt with teacher pay raises and reducing class sizes, and suspending them would save an estimated $1.1 billion.

The governor's plan also does away with the state's Basic Health and Disability Lifeline programs to save more than $550 million. The Basic Health Program provides subsidized medical insurance to 66,000 low-income people, and the Disability Lifeline program helps mainly childless adults who are unemployable, including many who are mentally ill.

Gregoire has said the state constitution puts about 60 percent of the state budget off-limits, leaving about $14 billion remaining where the cuts must come from.

A new look

Republicans say this is an opportunity for the state to examine what services it should -- or can -- provide. Mid-Columbia legislators -- all Republicans -- say the state just can't afford to provide every service it currently does.

"I think we really need to look at what are the essential services," Honeyford said.

Political science professor Gary Bullert at Columbia Basin College describes the cuts Gregoire is proposing as "root canal work."

"She's bitten the bullet, she's cutting programs," he said. "But she's going to get resistance from both sides."

Agriculture

Part of the governor's plan would cut agricultural research in Eastern Washington, in particular steeper cuts at the Washington State University Irrigated Agriculture Research Center in Prosser.

As the world's largest irrigated agriculture research center, the 1,200-acre facility has many different projects.

Among those, scientists are looking for ways to water wine grapes less at certain times for better flavor and at new pruning techniques for cherries. There is even a project to develop a stemless cherry that could be mechanically harvested.

The Prosser center already has taken a $250,000 cut, which included slashing its permanent base funding. The state made the Prosser research station give back about $150,000 last year.

In the coming biennium, the center will see a 6 percent reduction in funding, and research center director Pete Jacoby said even deeper cuts might happen -- possibly another 8 to 10 percent.

"We're sort of down to bare bones here already," he said.

The program has kept going by starting to charge researchers fees for using its land and facilities, and researchers have worked hard to get a larger cut of competitive federal grants, bringing in $8.2 million in 2009 -- up from $2.7 million in 2007.

Jacoby said the work done at Prosser helps farmers earn more from their operations.

One supporter that the center will have is the Washington Farm Bureau.

"We definitely have concerns with cuts to ag research," said Scott Dahlman, a Farm Bureau policy analyst. "It pays out huge dividends to our economy down the road."

Rep. Larry Haler and other east-side legislators also will be supporting a bill to relax water right restrictions.

Now farmers can lose water rights if they don't use the full amount of irrigation water they have rights to for several years in a row. Haler said that encourages over-use. But losing waters rights is a serious issue for farmers who might want to grow their operations in the future.

Education

One program Mid-Columbia lawmakers won't give up on easily is levy equalization money for schools.

The money helps districts operate on a more level playing field with more wealthy K-12 districts in Western Washington that can collect more in property taxes.

For example, in Pasco where there are a lot of low-income students, the district would lose $800,000.

Gregoire's plan calls for a 6.3 percent cut in the equalization payments. Combined, those and other cuts to education would save the state $2.2 billion during the next two years.

Haler, who will be the ranking Republican on the Higher Education Committee, thinks the governor should be cutting other areas of the budget and leave education alone.

"She's taking too much out of education," he said.

Higher education would see across-the-board budget cuts of 4.2 percent at four-year schools and community and technical colleges.

Washington State University Tri-Cities has taken a nearly 20 percent cut since 2008 while its enrollment has been climbing.

And at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, money for a social science and world languages building would be cut, along with worker retraining money that community colleges across the state have been using.

Fees could be targeted

Gregoire has said she got the message from voters during November's general election that they don't want to pay more taxes.

But what is considered a tax and what is a fee could mean the difference in this legislative session. Anything that can be defined as a fee could be increased, said Rep. Joe Schmick, R-Colfax.

The Washington Farm Bureau is concerned small family farms might take a big hit because of the pledge to not raise taxes. That's because running a farm operation requires paying a lot of fees for permits and inspections.

"They are really, really hurting our ability to survive," said the bureau's Dahlman.

The farm group has decided not to push for any new legislation this session and just concentrate on the budget issue.

"The budget is going to be the elephant in the room in every conversation," Dahlman said. "We don't want anything. We're not asking for anything. Just leave us alone and allow us to continue to operate."

Republicans also want the state to take another look at expenses, including state employee costs.

One area that Schmick says hasn't been looked at is what state services can be performed by the private sector. He calls it the "Yellow Pages" test -- what services are being offered by the state that you could open the phone book and find in the private sector.

He cites the state print shop as an example.

"This is an opportunity to come out with a government we can afford," Schmick said. "I hope, when we come out of this session, government is smaller and more efficient."

Haler said one of his main focuses will be his proposed amendment to the state constitution requiring a balanced budget. If approved by both the House and Senate, it would need voter approval to become law.

Pet projects

Every legislator has a bill or two they want to get passed.

Schmick wants to change a state law so that the population of the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell is not counted as part of the city's population.

The added inmates push the city's population above 5,000, forcing it to increase the number of city council members. It also stops the city from applying for some grants only available to smaller cities.

It was set to move through the Legislature last session, but Schmick said lawmakers just ran out of time. "It just makes sense," he said.

Honeyford wants the state driver's license law to require people to prove they are in the state legally before getting a license. That currently is not required.

He also is introducing a bill clarifying that insurance companies cannot declare that people who have a "do not resuscitate" order can't have their life insurance payout refused.

Some policies ban payment when suicide is involved, and Honeyford is worried insurance companies might try to say that people who ask not to be resuscitated have taken their own lives. He said he hasn't heard of this happening but thinks it needs to be clarified.

Sen. Jerome Delvin, R-Richland, plans to introduce a bill dealing with human trafficking and a medical marijuana bill that better addresses law enforcement needs. The former Richland police officer also plans to introduce a law that would allow the Washington State Patrol to waive the helmet requirement for motorcyclists riding in parades.

Several area lawmakers are supporting a bill that would allow pilot projects of wine and beer tasting at farmers markets.

And Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, who could not be reached this week, plans to introduce a bill to allow corrections employees to sue inmates for damages in assaults that happen at correction facilities.

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