This Is No Laughing Matter

WASHINGTON'S VOTERS are practical jokers.

That's the only possible explanation for their behavior in recent elections. They have raised havoc with the state budget by voting for initiatives that slash taxes—Tim Eyman's specialty—while simultaneously passing other initiatives that require new services but do not raise new revenue—the educrats' money grabs for smaller classes and more pay for teachers. Add the state's economic woes and you have a deficit of between $2 billion and $2.5 billion in the $25 billion general fund.

To give us an idea of how big that deficit is, Senate Minority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, points out that funding for all the state's higher education facilities—six public universities and 34 community and technical colleges—is $2.9 billion. If you abolished all of the state's prisons and eliminated the long-term care of the elderly and disabled, Brown says, you'd only save $2.5 billion.

The state's pranksters—I mean, voters—didn't end their mischief there, however. They gave control of the state House of Representatives to the Democrats by a slim majority, 52-46, while turning over the state Senate to the GOP by the narrowest possible margin—25-24. To make matters even more difficult, the voters re-elected a weak governor a couple of years back, Gary Locke. The final joke, of course, was launched by Washington's professional jester, Eyman, in the form of Initiative 800, which he recently amended to require a two-thirds supermajority in the Legislature—or any city or county council, for that matter—to raise taxes.

THE STATE'S POLITICAL parties are responding differently to these pranks.

State Rep. Helen Sommers, D-Seattle, is chair of the House Appropriations Committee. A 30-year veteran of Olympia whose slim physique and short stature can mislead a casual observer into underestimating her incredible tenacity, Sommers is pushing for deep cuts and new revenues. She has no hesitancy in going after initiatives, which can be overturned by a simple majority of legislators two years after the measures become law. The so-called class-size initiative, I-728, would cost $772 million over the next two years, according to Brown. Sommers says, "We will not do it." Also in her sights is I-732, which mandated annual cost-of-living increases for teachers statewide. Since health care costs for the poor and for state employees are rising so rapidly, Sommers wants to whack them back.

State Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle, quips, "Helen likes to cut. She's frugal, she's Norwegian!"

Sommers cracks up at the joke, points out she's only one-quarter Norwegian, and admits, "I'm not a big social-service spender. I question some of the things we do."

Even with all these Democratic sacred cows entering the slaughterhouse, Sommers insists, cuts alone will not be enough. She believes that revenue—some combination of taxes, fees, and fines—must be increased.

State Sen. Dino Rossi, R-Issaquah, newly elected chair of the Senate's Ways and Means Committee, is adamantly opposed to messing with the education initiatives or increasing revenue. Rossi seems a bit overwhelmed by his new job. The commercial real-estate broker and self- described conservative says, "I've got all these new best friends now. They all want a piece of the $25 billion." Elected in 1996, this year will mark his first time as chair of a committee. "Some people have been offering their condolences, given the state of the budget," quips Rossi, but he adds with his characteristic optimism, "I look at it as an opportunity."

ROSSI HOPES THE BUDGET can be used to go after those traditional Republican bugaboos: waste, fraud, and abuse. Meanwhile, he believes, government should work on improving the state's economic climate so business will boom and return the state's coffers to solvency.

Last year, he says, he came up with $1.5 billion in savings by going after excess in central government. His examples include cutting the fund for state government's miscellaneous expenses—paper, printing, paper clips, and the like—that has increased at five times the rate of inflation. The cost of government's furnishings is also skyrocketing, he argues. The state needs to institute a strict hiring freeze and stop paying for state agencies to have their own lobbyists, he continues.

Rossi stands by the education initiatives, however. "I want to figure out how we can save 728 and 732," he says.

Sommers says Rossi will discover his colleagues don't have the stomach for more than $2 billion in cuts. "They can't get the votes," she says confidently.

I'm betting Sommers has the last laugh in this showdown.

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