February 5, 2015

Republican legislative leaders: 'We can balance budget without new taxes'

By: Bobbi Cussins   Comments: 0
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, the Senate majority leader, addresses a full AWB Lobby Lunch crowd on Feb. 5, 2015. (Photo: Brian Mittge/AWB)

The glass is half full, Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, told AWB's Lobby Lunch crowd regarding the state operating budget and outlook for the 2015 legislative session.

"We haven't bought into the doom and gloom and pessimism," Schoesler, the Senate majority leader, said Thursday, noting that the state is expecting to gather an additional 8-9 percent in tax collections over the 2015-17 budget cycle, or $3 billion more for state government operations.

Schoesler was joined by Sen. Linda Evans-Parlette, R-Wenatchee and Senate Republican caucus chair; Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish and House Republican minority leader; and Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda and House Republican deputy leader.

A full room greeted the lawmakers to discuss the hot topics of the 2015 legislative session from the Republican perspective, including budget negotiations and state tax collections, forest fire response and forest management and the push for new and higher taxes on employers.

This first good step this year, Schoesler said, is that legislation to move up the state revenue forecast has passed out of the Senate and is now in the House for consideration. Senate Bill 5064 would move the state revenue forecast from March to February. The goal of the measure is to give lawmakers more time to craft the more than $37 billion budget within the allotted 105-day session.

Rep. Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said the extra $3 billion the state will collect over the next two years means the budget can be balanced without new taxes.
Asked about whether some in the Legislature are still focused on raising taxes despite the revenue growth, Kristiansen said there is a pretty large percentage of the Democratic caucus that will not be happy unless they see new tax revenue -- period. They don't want to acknowledge the $3 billion in higher tax collections already going to state government, he said.

Schoesler said a four-year balanced budget, as required by law, is possible without tax increases, but key cost drivers in the budget -- such as public employee collective bargaining contracts -- must be addressed.

Kristiansen said some sectors are doing well. But there are others that are really hurting. One of the challenges he said he faces in Olympia is many people making the decisions in the Legislature don't have a clear understanding of the real impacts the rise of the minimum wage on business, including the restaurant industry.

Aside from the budget and taxes, Schoesler laid out additional Senate Republican agenda items.

He said there are a lot of positive ideas that would make progress on issues that raise all boats in the employer community and solve some permitting issues that help everyone from bridge builders to those trying to build a manufacturing plant get projects going sooner, creating jobs.

Schoesler told the group of the positive agenda items, "We are not the party of 'no.' We'll say 'no' to bad ideas, but will counter them with better ideas." One example, he said, was the bipartisan proposal rolled out this week by Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, which addresses the governor's goal of carbon emissions reduction.

On a transportation project funding package, Schoesler said the Senate is looking at broad and smart reforms and wants to ensure the package is statewide, not just centered in one region of the state.

Kristiansen believes the balance of power will allow for greater collaboration on every issue, from the budget to transportation, and he is optimistic agreements on major issues can be reached in 105 days.

"Our caucus came into this session with a goal of 105 days," he told the crowd, which was met with applause. And, the Senate is on board with this, he said.

Sen. Linda Evans Parlette, R-Wenatchee, said the close division between the parties in Olympia is good for the public.
Adding to the need for bipartisan efforts to address the budget and, in particular, education funding, Evans-Parlette said, it is important to remember that there are 147 legislators. Currently, the Legislature has 74 Democrats and 73 Republicans.

"When your numbers are this close, it forces each party to talk and work with one another," she said.

That's all well and good, according to Kretz, but he said he would much prefer 15 more seats in his caucus to get working on solving major issues. One of which for him is forest fire response. And, he's taking a little different angle to get a seat at the table with the governor on the issue.

"If you've been to the governor's office lately, you know sooner or later there is one topic you're going to talk about: carbon," Kretz said.

"I've got my sights probably on the biggest polluter and that's forest fires," Kretz said.

Rep. Joel Kretz, R-Wauconda, wants the state to improve its forest fire prevention and response policy. 
Kretz's legislative district in Northeast Washington was the location of tremendous devastation from last summer's Carlton Complex Fire. The fire burned 256,000 acres and more than 400 structures.

The focus, he said, should be on what the state can do better in response to forest fires.

Solving the communication breakdowns, practicing better forest planning and management and convincing the state Department of Natural Resources to get serious about making changes to the bureaucracy are all areas that Kretz said can improve fire response and save forests, structures and lives.

One thing was clear after today's lunch event: There is optimism and seemingly a willingness to find common ground.

"Balanced government is best. When you leave here today, I hope you see that Washington state is not like Washington, D.C.," Evans-Parlette concluded.