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Ready for a road trip? As special session beckons, Senate Majority Leader Tom suggests statewide budget tour

Post by Brad Shannon / The Olympian on April 18, 2013 at 8:35 am | No Comments »
April 18, 2013 8:37 am
Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina
Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina

If Washington state lawmakers ever sipped truth serum, they’d probably fess right up: A special session is just around the corner in Olympia. But with 10 days left in the regular 105-day session, and lots of political positioning still left to do, leaders are taking a more nuanced position on the dance floor.

On Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Rodney Tom first insisted there was no need for a special session – as though wishing such things makes them so. But then he declared that he’d like to take Senate and House legislative leaders on a statewide tour – “20 towns in seven days” – to see what the public thinks of the rival budget ideas coming out of the upper and lower chambers.

Aides in Tom’s Republican-dominated Majority Coalition Caucus later confirmed that he was serious. But they clarified that his comments were meant only “if” the Legislature’s ongoing deadlock on policy and budget matters forces them into an overtime period.

“Let’s go have a conversation. Let’s go have a road show,” Tom said. “Let’s Mark, myself and Andy get in a car and Frank and Ross and Pat can get in a car. Let’s go to 20 towns in 7 days. Let’s talk about our vision as far as (how) the budget works. Let’s see where Washington is on that. I think what you’ll see is they’ll like our budget a lot better. Because the conversation they’ve been hearing for so many years is the only way you can fund education is through new taxes. I think we’ve been very clear in our budget that is not the case.”

Those first names were an inside-Olympia reference to Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville, whose 23 members make up the bulk of Tom’s 25-member no-new-taxes majority; Republican Senate budget author Andy Hill of Redmond; House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle; House budget author Ross Hunter, D-Medina; and House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington.

No mention of Ed, as in Sen. Ed Murray, the Senate Democratic Caucus leader from Seattle.

But Tom, who identifies himself as a Democrat and is liberal on social issues, might not get any takers from the Democratic side of the aisle.

Neither Gov. Jay Inslee and Rep. Sullivan – who both favor some $1.2 billion to $1.3 billion in new tax revenues to balance the state’s budget in a more sustainable way than Tom’s caucus is proposing – don’t wants to go on the road.

“I’m up for talking to people in a lot of different contexts,” Inslee told reporters at a bill signing. “You know me, I like talking to people.”

But Inslee, who just moved in to Olympia 2 ½ months ago after a long campaign, doesn’t want to leave town for another road show.

And Sullivan put out a statement in response to our query that claimed the high ground just like Tom did:

Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington
Rep. Pat Sullivan, D-Covington

“We have heard from people on the two budgets. Our members have heard from thousands of people from all over the state – in committee, in e-mail, on the phone, through the hotline. And the message we’ve gotten is pretty clear: they like our approach far better than that of the Senate Republicans. In fact, it seems the more people learn about the gimmicks used to balance the Senate Republican budget, the more they don’t like it.

“Many Senators who voted for the (S)enate Republican budget were pretty clear at the time that it was not a go-home budget. Several mentioned then that they were going to work to make changes and include additional resources as the final budget was negotiated. That is the process we are in now, and our caucus is still doing our best to complete our work on time.”

Of course both sides have embedded at least a grain of truth in their story lines.

The Senate Republican budget, which garnered support from seven members of the Democratic Caucus, does rely on gimmicks. One of the biggest is a raid of $166 million from a school trust fund that would use borrowed money from a bond issue to replenish funds that the Constitution specifically dedicates to school construction. It also relies on several hundred million dollars of savings that no Senate member has shown are realistic to expect.

On the other hand, the House relies on tax increases for which majority Democrats have not showed they have votes – let alone support in the Senate, where “no taxes” is the glue that has kept Tom’s caucus intact all year.

In fact, the House Democrats’ tax package won’t even get a hearing until Friday morning – at 8 a.m. in the House Finance Committee.

Time will tell, and given enough time, everyone will be in special session before they know it.

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