March 17, 2015

GOP budget leaders share perspective with Lobby Lunch crowd

By: Bobbi Cussins   Comments: 0
Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger, and Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, discuss the 2015 legislative session and budget process with the March 12, 2015, Lobby Lunch crowd. (Photo: Brian Mittge/AWB)
The elements are in place for lawmakers to finish their work on time this year, according to Rep. Bruce Chandler, R-Granger.

Both parties understand the reality of the budget challenges they face, as well as the need for a sustainable two-year state operating budget, Chandler, the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said last week during AWB's weekly Lobby Lunch meeting.

The news was met with guarded relief by attendees since the House Democrats, who are charged with introducing this year's spending plan, have yet to release their proposal even though the 105-day deadline of April 26 is fast approaching.

The sticking point: Tax increases.

Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond and chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, told the crowd he has been talking about the "budget deficit myth" since last fall.

The notion, he said, that we could have more than $3 billion in increased tax collections and still have the governor come forward with billions in new and higher taxes, including his signature legislation to create a $1.3 billion cap-and-trade tax, because the state will have a "budget shortfall" makes no sense.

The laws of mathematics in Olympia also stump Chandler.

"Olympia is the only place I have ever been where you get more money and still call it a cut," he said.

But, the bigger question is: Do the House Democrats have enough votes with their 51-47 majority in the chamber to pass the tax bills?

Hill said that if the House Democratic budget relies on tax increases to balance, those tax bills must be passed alongside the budget so the Senate receives a balanced proposition to start negotiations.

In years past, House Democrats, in the majority for more than a decade, have sent budget proposals that relied on millions in tax increases over to the Senate without having passed the tax bills to balance the spending plans.

"Unbalanced budgets don't count," Hill said, should the lower chamber decide to pass a budget that spends more than current tax collections.

Regarding some additional sticking points, Chandler said state employee collective bargaining and pay parity for non-union employees will stir some debate. Additionally, there are investments that need to be made in the area of mental health treatment, which the state Supreme Court mandated in a recent ruling.

Aside from the budget and taxes, Chandler said there are also measures, like the $12 statewide minimum wage bill that passed the House March 3, that concern him.

"While Seattle's booming economy may be able to absorb the increased wage, there is more than one economy in the state. Not every place is performing the same," he explained.

In fact, only three counties of 39 in the state have unemployment rates below the national average, according to state Employment Security Department data. The highest, Ferry County, has a 13.3 percent unemployment rate.

Also related to job creation, tax incentives employers rely on as a means to be competitive nationally and globally, such as the high-tech R&D and food processor incentives, are in limbo while the budget is being crafted.

The Senate's transportation funding and reform package is also being held up in the House, according to Chandler, because the House Democrats want to pass the full state operating budget first.

This approach has the potential to send the Legislature into yet another special session, he said.

"If every lawmaker was forced to drive I-405 from Redmond to Olympia for two weeks, we'd have a transportation funding package signed already," Hill said.

There is absolutely no need, said Chandler, to have a special session for the transportation package.

The March 19 Lobby Lunch will have House and Senate Democratic leaders to discuss their views on the state operating budget.