It might be a good time for local 4th District legislators to pick up some suits of armor. Because, by just about any standard, the 2010 legislative session looks like it could get bloody.
State Sen. Bob McCaslin took a break from his seat on the Spokane Valley City Council this week to make the trip to Olympia, joining 4th District Reps. Larry Crouse and Matt Shea. McCaslin and Crouse are both Spokane Valley residents, while Shea lives within the district’s northern borders in Mead.
McCaslin and Crouse – both Republicans – are not anxious to see how the Democrat-controlled state House and Senate plan on balancing a budget that, by most accounts, will fall nearly $3 billion. But they expect that the solution will likely fall on more taxes and less so on decreased spending.
“I’ve never been for more taxes,” McCaslin said. “But it’s been going on for years.”
McCaslin should know: He’s been serving in the Senate since 1980. Crouse is no rookie, either, having been there since first being elected in 1994.
“By all accounts, this will be a tough session,” Crouse said.
The Legislature convened on Monday with the reality that the $2.6 billion budget gap would have the No. 1 priority. The problem is that not all the lawmakers are nearly in agreement how to close it.
Complicating matters, Democrats in Olympia – including Lisa Brown, who represents Spokane and is the majority leader of the state Senate – have stated they plan to suspend or modify Initiative 960, which requires a two-thirds legislative majority or voter approval for tax increases. The initiative can now be tweaked by the Legislature since the voter approval came more than two years ago. Tim Eyman, who sponsored I-960, has announced he will attempt to get a replacement initiative on the ballot next fall.
There is also concern by conservatives that their Democratic colleagues will attempt to close off tax loopholes or other exemptions that businesses currently have. According to McCaslin and Crouse, forcing business owners – especially small ones – to pay an inordinate amount of fees will only delay economic-recovery efforts. Plus, they say, Washington’s lack of business-friendly legislation has kept many companies, like Cabela’s, from locating in this state.
“There are two things businesses are afraid of,” McCaslin said, “the existing tax structure and what’s coming – a possible income tax.”
The latter option would take an overhaul of the state Constitution – something that isn’t likely, especially during an election year for House members. It’s also something that Democrats have gone on record saying they would not support at this time.
Still, there have been little specifics as to how revenues can be raised, as sales taxes are expected to remain flat.
“It’s harder than it’s ever been (to balance the budget),” Crouse said. “And it seems to be getting harder.”
Proposed hikes in taxes to liquor or tobacco products only raise “a hundred million dollars,” Crouse said, so it’s likely that the Legislature will look to something larger, such as possibly raising sales taxes. A halfpenny increase in sales tax would reportedly bring in $518 million.
McCaslin thinks it would be a foolish thing to do.
“The problem with government taxes is that people want to know, ‘Is this the last time you’re going to ask me?’” he said. “Where does it end?”
McCaslin would rather see Gov. Christine Gregoire start looking toward shedding government employees.
“That’s a lot of money,” he said.
Crouse said that while the budget will likely dominate the short session, he wouldn’t be surprised if some other surprise legislation slipped through at some point.
“Certain lawmakers always want certain things,” he said. “We can’t all be working on the budget.”