Seventeen people were arrested after trying to storm the governor’s office in a third day of mounting protests over state budget cuts Thursday.
In a prelude to what unions say will be an even bigger rally today, a protest organized by the Service Employees International Union brought about 500 people to Olympia to call on state lawmakers to end corporate tax exemptions before cutting state services.
Most protesters rallied in the Rotunda of the Legislative Building Thursday afternoon. Several were eventually arrested when they tried to push past Washington State Patrol officers guarding the governor’s office and refused to leave.
Protesters pushed against troopers stationed at the governor’s door shouting “let us in” and “we want the governor.”
“They (legislators) need to listen to us,” said Sharon Kitchel-Perdue a home-care worker from Olympia and one of the protesters arrested.
Sgt. John Sager, one of the troopers on the scene said that some of the protesters had said they wanted to be arrested, and eventually, their actions gave troopers no choice.
“It was getting pretty hairy in here,” Sager said.
State patrol spokesman Bob Calkins said one protester was cited with two counts of third degree assault for hitting two state troopers, and the other 16 were cited for disorderly conduct and released.
Calkins said the two troopers who were hit by the protester were not seriously injured.
SEIU spokesman Adam Glickman said the arrests showed union members wanted to send a message.
“We hope that elected officials will take this for what it is, which is a statement about the severity of these cuts,” he said.
Sen. Jeannie Kohl-Welles, the sponsor of one bill that would add sunset dates to about 300 tax exemptions in the state, said she thought the rallies strengthened the case for the proposal. After the arrests Thursday, Gov. Chris Gregoire agreed to meet with a delegation of protesters to hear their concerns.
Earlier in the day, protesters rallied outside of Chase bank in Olympia to show their opposition to a state business and occupation tax deduction that exempts banks from paying taxes on the interest they make from first mortgages.
That exemption was first enacted in 1970 and was intended to reduce the cost of buying a home for Washington residents, according to the state’s tax exemption manual.
If it were eliminated, it would bring in about $86.6 million in taxes in 2011.
Throughout the week protesters have called for the end of tax exemptions for elective cosmetic surgery, non-organic fertilizer and country club membership fees, among others.
State lawmakers have countered that raising taxes will be particularly difficult this session because voters passed Initiative 1053, which requires either two-thirds of the Legislature or a vote of the people to approve tax increases.
When he released the House Democrats’ version of a two-year operating budget for the state Monday, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Rep. Ross Hunter, said he didn’t think it would be a good idea to count on new money this year.
“You don’t see a line here for new legislation that might require a two-thirds vote because it seemed foolish to include that in the budget,” said Hunter, a Medina Democrat.
Senate and House Republican caucus leaders Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, and Rep. Richard Debolt, R-Chehalis, said they doubted any Republicans would support raising taxes because doing so could lead Washington businesses to lay off employees.
Jared Miller, a children’s mental health counselor from Olympia who attended the protest Thursday, said he was disappointed that legislators were planning on “cutting their way out of the budget crisis.” He thought there could be popular support for a ballot measure to raise taxes in the state.
“I think if people really know the choices that they’re making and the consequences of not raising revenue for the state, there would be support,” Miller said. “We’re creating awareness.”
Protesters Thursday said they were particularly concerned about the consequences of a $97.5 million proposed cut to the home-care workers’ hours and an $18.2 million cut to mental health services for low-income Washington residents that were included in Monday’s budget proposal.
Throughout the week, protests have also focused on cuts to naturalization services for refugees and immigrants and to social safety net programs including Basic Health and Disability Lifeline.
The biggest protest of the week is planned for Friday, when Washington Labor Council spokesman Sam Ross said he expects 5,000 to 10,000 union representatives and others to come to Olympia from around the state.
Major issues that protesters are likely to focus on, Ross said, are salary and pension cuts for state workers and reduced funding for the Basic Health Plan.