Rep. Larry Haler has six words to sum up the legislative session that starts Monday.
"The budget. The budget. The budget," said the Richland Republican.
Lawmakers return to Olympia this week for a 60-day session in which they will face at least $1 billion budget deficit just a few weeks after adjourning from a special session in which they made almost $500 million in cuts, transfers and policy changes.
With about two-thirds of the general fund budget off-limits for cuts, the session could turn into a showdown between those advocating for money for education and those advocating to keep health and human services programs.
A budget proposal released in November by Gov. Chris Gregoire suggested myriad cuts, including slashing more than $500 million from K-12 and higher education and reducing the K-12 school year by four days; cutting more than $690 million from health and human services, including eliminating Basic Health Plan coverage for 35,000 people; and cutting off state-funded food stamps for low-income people.
Adding to the possible tension is a Supreme Court decision published Thursday wagging a finger at the state for failing to adequately pay for basic K-12 education, but acknowledging that the Legislature is on the right track with some reforms passed in recent years.
"With the decision, the whole issue of education is going to be looked at and dealt with judiciously," said Rep. Maureen Walsh, R-Walla Walla, whose district includes Pasco and part of Kennewick. "There's going to be a big movement afoot to address the issue so we don't get ourselves into a situation where we're dealing with lawsuits."
But Walsh, who sits on the House Early Learning & Human Services, and Health & Human Services Appropriations & Oversight committees, said she hopes a balance can be struck between paying for education programs and protecting what remains of the safety net for the state's most vulnerable citizens.
"When you look at the big picture, education is the answer," Walsh told the Herald. "We will have a much lesser demand on social services if we have people who are educated and can support their own families."
At the same time, Walsh is concerned enough about programs for people with developmental disabilities and senior citizens that she is willing to consider a half-cent sales tax increase proposed by Gregoire -- although she would like to see the Legislature turn over every rock and make every possible reform first.
"I think folks know I'm passionate about my vulnerable folks," she said. "The reality is if we continue to make cuts in that arena, we are going to find out the costs far outweigh the cuts. ... I feel very strongly if push came to shove and somebody said, 'We're going to cut all the funding for those programs,' if it came right down to it we don't want to be penny wise and pound foolish."
Advocates for people with disabilities and seniors have been up in arms ever since Gregoire released a list of suggested cuts that included slashing in-home care hours and state-funded prescription drug coverage, arguing the cuts would result in people having to enter expensive nursing homes if they can't get in-home care, or becoming seriously ill or dying if they can't get medications.
Tammy and Brian Bornhorst, a Kennewick married couple who both have developmental disabilities, said they would lose their state-funded jobs at Columbia Industries and probably their ability to live in their own apartment if all of Gregoire's proposed cuts come to fruition.
"I'd be lost," Tammy Bornhorst said.
The couple only need a few hours of in-home help each day from Tri-Cities Residential Services, but those few hours involve help with daily household tasks such as paying bills and grocery shopping, help getting to doctor's appointments, and making sure they get their medications at the right times -- tasks Bornhorst doesn't think she and her husband of 18 years could do on their own.
"I wouldn't have someone to talk to if something happens," she said. "I don't think I could do it. I just couldn't do it."
John Osborne, a fellow client of Tri-Cities Residential Services, said he relies on the agency for help with "everything" -- including maintaining his quality of life through groups and activities, such as a field trip to Silverwood Theme Park.
Kay Hamilton, director of programs at Columbia Industries, said cuts already made by the state have affected the people with disabilities her agency services.
"We've witnessed tragedy first-hand at CI," she said. "Further cuts will cost more lives and have a devastating impact on the individuals we serve and many families already struggling."
A group of advocates for people with disabilities that includes Tri-Cities Residential Services, Ambitions, The Arc of Tri-Cities, Benton Franklin Parent Coalition, Columbia Industries, FREED, Goodwill Industries and People First are having a candlelight vigil in Richland's John Dam Plaza at 3:30 p.m. Monday to draw awareness to the possible harms that could result from budget cuts.
As part of her budget package, Gregoire asked the Legislature to consider sending a 0.5 percent sales tax increase proposal to voters this spring that would raise the state's sales tax from 6.5 cents to 7 cents per dollar spent to "buy back" cuts to education, corrections and services for seniors and people with developmental disabilities.
After county and local sales taxes are added, that would bring the sales tax in Kennewick and Richland to 8.8 cents per dollar, and in Pasco to 9.1 cents per dollar when the recently passed 0.3 percent Franklin County jail tax is added.
The increased state portion of the sales tax would last for three years, and raise almost $500 million in the first year.
Republicans in the Legislature instead have talked about expanding gaming by allowing slot machines in card rooms to generate more than $400 million.
Rep. Susan Fagan, R-Pullman, whose district includes North Franklin County, advocated government reforms instead of taxes.
"We are overspending," Fagan said. "Where we need to take more responsibility with how we spend taxpayer dollars today."
Haler said the Legislature should be looking at any possible idea, even the ones that in the past would have been considered "budget dust" -- items too small to be of concern.
"When you're talking about taxpayer dollars there is no such thing as budget dust," Haler said.